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Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout: prepare your heart and mind for some beautiful blows

Review: Ten years on we find Olive Kitteridge having to confront her old age

Olive, Again
Olive, Again
Author: Elizabeth Strout
ISBN-13: 978-0241374597
Publisher: Viking
Guideline Price: £14.99

Maine, the largest state in New England at 6,000 sq km, is the most northeasterly point of the USA. To the north lies Canada and to the east its famous rocky coastline angles along the Atlantic Ocean. As 80 per cent of the land is covered in forestry, Maine has the lowest population of any state east of the Mississippi River. Statistics suggest that it should be economically depressed but the awesome beauty of its landscape has saved it from ruin. This is the state where Elizabeth Strout was born and raised and the same location where Olive Kitteridge, her Pulitzer Prize winning novel of 2008, was set in the fictional town of Crosby.

Everyone fell in love with Olive, the invisible subject from literature who had been given a voice the world desperately wanted to hear

No-one was more surprised than Strout when this, her third novel, exceeded all expectations by winning the Pulitzer accolade and ultimately selling over a million copies worldwide. First of all, it was questionable as to whether the book should really be considered a novel, consisting as it does of 13 individual stories with the incomparable Olive as the tenuous link connecting them. And then there was Olive herself, a disgruntled, straight-talking, difficult woman who exhibited all of the delicious flawed human truths of an ordinary woman that has so often been marginalised in literature. Flouting any anxiety regarding the “likability” of her protagonist, Strout flew in the face of convention and was awarded with the greatest prize of all; everyone fell in love with Olive, the invisible subject from literature who had been given a voice the world desperately wanted to hear.

Since then, Olive Kitteridge has found further infamy through Frances McDormand’s portrayal of her for the HBO mini-series of the same name. And now she is back, and Strout has reclaimed her as her own.

Olive, Again, follows the same structure as before: 13 interconnected stories where Olive plays major and minor roles as she finagles her presence into each one. As before, the narratives layer each other so the themes of poverty, shame, loneliness, motherhood, disappointment, love, grief and hope are deepened and reverberate throughout. By focusing a spotlight on the exquisite intimacies of these ordinary lives, Strout exposes the great universal themes of life with a laser precision that elevates the minutiae of their existences to something truly revelatory and extraordinary.


It is not essential to have read Olive Kitteridge to appreciate Olive, Again as the work unquestionably stands alone, but, having done so will offer a deeper understanding of the later years of Olive’s life that are borne witness to in the second offering. Despite 10 years passing between both books, it is quite remarkable how seamless the transition is between them without any perceptible shift in tone or style. We find Olive exactly where we left her and you could finish Olive Kitteridge and begin Olive, Again a moment later without feeling like you’d missed a beat in her life. It is a testament to the incredible storytelling of Strout, the confident command she has over her work and the specific identity of a prose that is uniquely her own.

Olive Kitteridge continues to enrage me, continues to astonish me with her complexities - and she continues to make me love her

It is painful at times, observing Olive having to confront her old age as she reconciles her past behaviours with her present circumstances. And part of that pain comes with the recognition that Olive is all of us: complex and full of contradictions; flawed human beings who don’t always tolerate, speak, react or behave as our best selves; who are capable of doing wonderful, and sometimes less than wonderful things we never thought imaginable. Strout never pulls any punches on the page and so we are confronted with the best and worst of the human condition, but always delivered with grace and empathy. It is clear Strout never judges her characters; she just listens carefully to their voices. Somehow, the cumulative effect of all this within the novel is to leave the reader with hope and a restored faith in the stubborn optimism and potential of the human heart. “Olive thought about this: the way people can love those they barely know, and how abiding that love can be, and also how deep that love can be, even when it was temporary. It was to be taken seriously, Olive saw this. All love was to be taken seriously.”

Strout said of the new book, that “Olive Kitteridge continues to enrage me, continues to astonish me with her complexities - and she continues to make me love her. I hope the reader does as well.” For all those who fell in love with Olive the first time around, this follow-up delivers on everything you would hope for, and more. And for anyone meeting Olive for the first time, prepare your hearts and minds for some beautiful blows.

Helen Cullen

Helen Cullen

Helen Cullen, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a novelist and critic