24 November, 2019 • • 40.9Literature

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A Difficult Ending

Pasquale S. Toscano

Elizabeth Strout
Olive, Again
Viking Books




Elizabeth Strout’s Olive, Again reminded me of why I once wrote an undergraduate thesis on the affinities between my favorite American novelists: Marilynne Robinson and Strout herself.

Both writers focus on what might otherwise seem petty and mundane—strained conversations between even the most closely related of family members, wounded pride and hurt feelings, grudges never forgotten until it’s too late. Both writers resist the (post-)postmodern emphasis on deracination and alienation from a sense of place that tended to dominate American letters in the early twenty-first century. And both writers create characters who identify fiercely with the natural and built environments around them. Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead, for instance, takes the shape of a long letter by John Ames, the avuncular and dying minister who nearly conflates himself with Gilead, Iowa. The town is small and worn-out, with an unadorned simplicity on the Great Plains that becomes the best vehicle Ames can offer to his son for the tenor that his is life. The pastor’s wife and best friend’s daughter, protagonists of Robinson’s subsequent two Gilead novels, likewise see themselves in Gilead though for different reasons.

For her part, Strout returns in Olive, Again to the circumscribed world of Crosby, Maine, the setting for her previous novel of short stories, Olive Kitteridge (2008). In this case, the seaside hamlet’s jagged beachhead reflects the eponymous character’s rebarbative brand of empathy, emerging always at the most unexpected of moments. “I’m starving too,” the corpulent Olive explains to an anexoric girl in Olive Kitteridge, who’s unsurprisingly offended by this apparently baseless confession. “Why do you think I eat every doughnut in sight?” Strout’s sequel, another book of short stories which always involve Olive in one way or another, features similar interactions that round the character out tactfully, while evoking at the same time Crosby’s crisp air, New England no-nonsense, and sharp coastline. To one casual acquaintance, a young lady forced to clean her English teacher’s house, Olive mutters only, “I know who she is. Another old horror. Well good luck.” Later, in a grocer’s, she tells a woman dying from cancer, “You’re having a hell of a time,” after which Olive becomes one of this new friend Cindy Coombs’s few regular visitors. 

For all of the parallels between their work, however, Robinson and Strout differ in one unavoidable way: the former seems always to have a reason for returning to Gilead, another sphere or dimension of human existence to explore; Strout, unfortunately, traverses the same ground with less purpose. 

Let me explain.

Of Robinson’s three Gilead novels, the first centers on Ames, whose elegiac prose tracks the pastor’s relationships with two sons: his biological scion Robby and his prodigal godson Jack—the youngest child of Ames’s best friend Boughton—who returns just as our narrator is living out his final days, one final thorn in the old man’s side. But then in Home, Robinson revisits Gilead from the perspective of Jack’s sister Glory, who’s left prospectless when her fiancé abandons her, forced to return home to endure Boughton’s geriatric needs and subtle misogyny. Finally, in the third novel, Lila, we learn of Ames’s much younger, elusive, late-in-life wife, once homeless, impoverished, and a former prostitute, resisting what she sees as the judgmental, even ignorant, attitudes which her husband’s faith kindles. Three novels, one small town, and never do we feel mired in redundancy. Instead, Robinson wisely experiments with different narrative modalities—from first-person narration in Gilead to free-indirect discourse in Lila and Home, from the epistolary form’s immediacy to the developments of later, nineteenth century, realist novels. Even more importantly, Robinson gives us three protagonists who, though they make appearances in each of the Gilead novels, speak of their own wildly disparate experiences, anxieties, and fears, with their own voices, in only one. The trilogy therefore evolves organically, each piece falling into place beside the others, rather than on top of them by rehashing nearly identical thematic concerns.

But Strout’s literary chops are no less impressive: Olive Kitteridge, to its credit, does a better job than any of the Gilead novels of evoking the circuitous, dense, sometimes claustrophobic interconnections of a small town with its dizzying array of characters woven masterfully into a compact narrative structure. Strout’s short stories refer to, echo, and build from one another while at the same time giving us a sense for the wide trajectory of Olive’s life. She stars in many of them, while others focus mostly on fellow Crosbians who think of Strout’s protagonist only in passing or because of something she once told them, such as in ‘Ship in a Bottle’: “don’t be scared of your hunger. If you’re scared of your hunger, you’ll just be one more ninny like everyone else”. 

If there is a consistent through-line connecting subject matter as disparate as suicide, conjugal infidelity, hyper-religious upbringing, the horrors of pedophilia, murder, armed robbery, marital strife (including Olive’s ostensibly unwarranted acerbity towards her gentle husband Henry), raising children while depressed (and its after-effects: this time Olive’s fraught relationship with her son Christopher), regret, and profound loneliness, it’s this theme of emotional starvation, and the importance of expressing it. For too long, Olive realizes after it’s too late—after Henry has died and her son tells her, “You have a bad temper. At least I think it’s a temper. But you can make people feel terrible. You made Daddy feel terrible”—she’s wanted nothing more than to be loved, all the while ashamed of this profound neediness and therefore at a loss for how to begin discussing it.

No conundrum could have resonated with me more when I read this book one year after a spinal-cord injury had left me temporarily paralyzed below the waist—when walking still proved as hard as it was in those twilight days of infancy—and I viscerally felt Olive’s hunger for human intimacy, as well as her isolation. How could any of my peers—only twenty, virile, active, physically fit—understand the experiences I had been navigating for the past twelve months; how could I even begin to explain my drastically transformed needs? In these moments, Olive became a companion, a sage, her advice and troubles and heartache reminding me that I wasn’t so alone.

Revivifying that larger than life granddam of American letters, Olive, Again, offers us no short supply of haunting, often heartrending stories, always focalized with what seems to be just the right vernacular—if at times, repetitive: “Cindy Coombs pulled her shopping cart out of the way of a young couple and saw the man look at her. She saw him look away, then she saw him look at her again”. (One could find another essay topic, surely, in Strout’s superiority to the more frequently celebrated Anne Tyler on this point.) One story, for instance, centres on the return to Crosby of a young attorney named Suzanne whose abusive father has recently burned to death in a housefire. And yet, Stout’s genius lies in her ability to somehow turn the desolately macabre beginnings of “Helped” into a touching narrative of genuine human connection between Suzanne and her unscrupulous father’s kindhearted attorney Bernie. 

Many of the other stories, though not all, proceed in just this way, commencing with despair and ending with some kind of emotionally-restorative fellowship. In “Light,” for example, Olive and the ill Cindy Coombs sit together, marveling at “that February light”: “The sunlight was magnificent, it shone a glorious yellow from the pale blue sky, and through the bare branches of the trees, with the open-throated look that came toward the end of the day’s light,” Strout tells us in one of the best sentences of the book. Still others explore the troubles, material and psychological, of a widowed Olive who’s decided to marry Jack Kennison (whom she first met in last story of Olive Kitteridge) and must therefore move from her home—“the house that looked small now and would be razed to the ground by whoever bought it, the property was what mattered”—though their love for each other is surprisingly fierce and carries much of the book.

But for all of Strout’s insight into the emotional vagaries of human behavior, I can’t shake the sensation of literary déjà vu while reading Olive, Again, and for good reason. The novel’s structure obviously mirrors its predecessors’: both books begin with a story focused on Olive’s love interest so we can observe the difficulties that her characteristic blend of recalcitrant reticence, low tolerance for superciliousness, and craving for interpersonal intimacy pose to the character’s relationships (her husband Henry in “Pharmacy” and second husband Jack in “Arrested”). Then we transition to Olive’s viewpoint, and her surprising instinct for when others need help: she saves a former student from dying by suicide in “Incoming Tide” (Olive Kitteridge), and then delivers a baby in “Labor” from Olive, Again. Other characters have their few seconds in the sun in both books too, as we witness Olive from the perspective of those, often townspeople, not intimately connected to her (“The Piano Player,” “Cleaning”). And so, like Olive KitteridgeOlive, Again concerns itself with a capacious scope of ethical concerns, this time turning on a family who must accept their dominatrix daughter, a famous poet who lampoons her former teacher (Olive herself), and the relationship between three older siblings careworn by life, to reference just a few of the stories.

In both books, moreover, Olive’s husbands die; in both, Olive’s relationship to her son, his wife, and their children takes its emotional toll; in both, she suffers major health scares (“Tulips,” “Heart”) and must find a way to make sense of the world by once again accepting her inescapable, inexorable neediness (“River,” “Friend”). Some of the echoes from one book to the other—the most artful being Olive’s condemnation of “mousy” Denise Thibodeau in “Pharmacist,” the first story of Olive Kitteridge, mirrored by her eventual acceptance of “mousy” Isabelle in “Friend,” the last story of Olive, Again—enhance the reading experience considerably. Others feel less intentional, the same subjects surfacing repeatedly because they matter to Strout, a redundancy which ultimately dilutes her profounder meditation on them in Olive Kitteridge (much like Tyler, it’s worth adding, in her many books about middle-aged marital relations). It is in this collection, after all, that Strout’s knack for figurative language reaches its most dazzling heights, at no moment more gutting than when she realizes that

love was not to be tossed away carelessly, as if it were a tart on a platter with others that got passed around again. No, if love was available, one chose it, or didn’t choose it. And if her platter had been full with the goodness of Henry and she had found it burdensome, had flicked it off crumbs at a time, it was because she had not known what one should know: that day after day was unconsciously squandered. (270)

For a long time, in fact, I feared that Olive, Again, would all but fade in my mind compared to its forbear. That is, until I came upon the last two stories, “Heart” and “Friend.” It would be a disservice to limn them completely, for Strout invests much of their power in the unexpected chasms (political, intergenerational, familial, dispositional) that characters reconcile, as the collection moves towards a culmination packed tight with salvific potential. 

But I’ll pause briefly over a particularly relatable observation: “Olive wondered if her feelings for the man,” her doctor, “had been because she thought he had saved her life. Maybe you fall in love with people who save your life, even when you think it’s not worth saving.” Hospitalized, she must discuss her dysfunctional bowels with this physician, all the while mortified; at a check-up appointment later, she attempts to apply make-up, but realizes only too late that it’s hopelessly garish. Desperately, Olive yearns to court this man’s affection, not because she loves him, but because he has seen her at her worst, her most vulnerable, and cared at just the right moment.

There was such a doctor in my life too, a young resident in the emergency room at Stanford, who couldn’t have been much older than me: well-trimmed facial hair hugging the contours of his jawline, scrubs sinuating impressively over bundles of muscles, his figure proved the very antithesis to my newly disabled body, whose personal space had become all but a fantasy in the hurried, and hairy, moments after traumatic injury. He eased the pain; he told me I’d be walking again, he clasped his hand upon my shoulder, this doctor at Stanford. And all the while, I wanted him to know that I was there on a graduate school visit. That I was a Rhodes Scholar. That I was finishing a master’s degree in Oxford, this unaccommodated man writhing in pain. Helpless.

Mine is not a wholly irrelevant story, for much of Olive, Again and Olive Kitteridge illuminate how we make sense of the world when these kinds of identities in which we often take stock—from scholar to wife, university affiliate to mother, Trump supporter (and Strout’s handling of contemporary politics is one of the most nuanced aspects of the book) to Somali—are stripped away in the corrosive acid of pain, physical and psychological alike, what Strout at one moment describes as a “reticulation spreading through” Olive.

It’s not that this book isn’t wondrous in its own way, especially when considered independently from Olive Kitteridge. My grouse is only that it often feels superfluous in the kind of way for which Olive herself has little patience, with her flippant turns of phrase—“Hell’s bells” or “Godfrey”—and penchant for “tossing a hand over her head” as she walks away. On the one hand,  Olive, Again foregrounds the circular, repetitive, often devastating but sometimes restorative oscillations of life. On the other, it proves an unneeded, ultimately distracting, appurtenance to that most brilliant of character studies, Olive Kitteridge. Unlike Olive, this masterpiece does best when left alone.


Pasquale S. Toscano is a Ph.D. student in English literature at Princeton University. He focuses on the early-modern period, and especially on how shifting constructions of “ability” intersect with evolving conceptions of heroism in the Renaissance epic.