Olive Kitteridge, the Lovable Curmudgeon, is Back!
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Author Elizabeth Strout first introduced us to Olive Kitteridge in a book by that name in 2009. The book went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. In 2014, HBO turned the story into a five-part mini-series staring Frances McDormand as Olive. And then in 2019, Strout gave us an update on this character in Olive, Again. It was an eagerly awaited book.
All of this attention to Olive is interesting because she is a cantankerous woman to say the least. She was not always kind to her now deceased husband, Henry, and she is estranged from her adult son and his family. But, as we learn more about Olive, perhaps we can forgive her these failings. Does the fact that her father committed suicide help us to be sympathetic to her? How about a mother who may or may not have explained Olive’s status as an only child with the words, “After you? We didn’t dare have another child after you.” Are these mitigating circumstances for becoming a prickly-pear?
In both books, the author writes linked stories about Olive. Most of the time, she is the main character in the story, but sometimes she just makes a cameo appearance. For instance, in Olive, Again there is a story featuring the Burgess family (Strout has written an entire book about them, The Burgess Boys). The wives of Bobby and Jim Burgess are out shopping and they bump into Olive. That’s it! Olive’s part ends there. The story of the Burgess family spins on and ends with Bobby Burgess’ reverie as he tells us that his soul is aching and explains, “It should never be taken lightly, the essential loneliness of people, that the choices they made to keep themselves from that gaping darkness were choices that required respect.” This, of course, helps us to understand – and love – Olive.
I should confess that I have loved Olive since I first met her in the 2009 book. Not only that, I have identified with her. Yes, I too, can be a hard-to-understand prickly pear.
Loving her, it’s wonderful to see her find love – and a second marriage – at age 74. She and Jack have eight years together before he dies. And this is one of the ways the concept of linked stories works so well. Were this a straight novel, we’d need to go through Jack’s demise. Instead, a couple pages into a new chapter, Olive thinks of herself as an old lady who has “buried two husbands.” The author goes back to tell us more…but not much!
At this point, I started to worry about Olive’s future in the hands of Elizabeth Strout and was almost afraid to continue reading the book, afraid my good friend Olive might die. It’s astounding that such a curmudgeon can be so lovable. I rooted for her until the very last page. I think you will too.
I highly recommend this book.
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