By Heidi Simmons
by Elizabeth Strout – Fiction
Aging is not easy. It’s hard to accept that the body degenerates and the mind slows. We mostly live in denial of aging, but that will inevitably fade as well. In Elizabeth Strout’s Olive, Again (Random House, 304 pages), an eighty-three-old year old woman finally comes to terms with her life and actions.
This is a sequel to the 2008 bestselling novel Olive Kitteridge about a narcissistic, unfiltered, know-it-all woman who is critical and judgmental about her community and the people who live there. She can see everyone’s faults but her own.
From what I remember, at the end of the first novel, Olive had retired from teaching, her husband had died and her son had moved away. You don’t need to read the first novel to appreciate the second book.
The story picks up with the Olive we already know blithely criticizing members of the community. She is jealous of another widow who seems to be showing interest in Jack, a man who has shown interested in her. She marries Jack, who helps her reconnect with her son. Jack and Olive grow old together until he passes away.
Olive fears she may have to one day move “across the bridge” to an old folks home. For years, Olive visited friends and neighbors there never really thinking she might end up living there herself.
When she finally accepts her new living situation in the “retirement home,” she finds it’s hard to make friends. She has a reputation and people no longer bother being polite to her. Olive ages the best she can and runs into her former students who are now parents or professionals. Through their eyes Olive gets a picture of herself and what her life has meant to others.
I always appreciated the character of Olive. She is a smart woman. Her honesty, unencumbered directness and her impatience for bullshit made me like her and sympathize with her as well. I saw her as assertive. However, her pride and arrogance got in her way to love fully and be loved completely.
It is for those reasons that I enjoyed Olive, Again. In this story, we get to see Olive age from her 60s into her 80s. Through the fast moving decades, Olive learns to love others and accept herself warts and all.
At times, the chapters felt like short stories and seemed disconnected from Olive’s life. I wasn’t quite sure if I was supposed to know or remember the characters that were suddenly introduced. Some didn’t seem to fit into Olive’s world.
There were a few outstanding and memorable characters who interacted with Olive that moved me. The pregnant girl, the Poet Laureate and the Somali nursing assistant each connect with Olive in meaningful ways. They appreciate Olive for her directness and the wisdom she passes on to them.
Olive reconnects with her son, accepts being widowed twice, and discovers friendships she didn’t realize she had.
Spending time with Olive, we get a better understanding of the aging process and what is ahead for us if we are lucky to grow old. If we have the good fortune to live long enough, we will need help and won’t be allowed to live alone or drive our cars. Some of us will outlive our spouses. Some of us will die suddenly, or in our sleep, of disease, or in an accident. However it comes, death is coming one day.
It is hard to accept that we are going to die, but seeing Olive age and her fearlessness is encouraging and insightful. I especially appreciated that finally, Olive appreciates life in a new way and realizes she understands nothing.