I finished Elizabeth Strout’s Olive, Again last week and had mixed feelings. The characters are robust and stirringly drawn, and Strout has a remarkable knack for conjuring space in seemingly sparse prose. There are scenes in the book where the dimensions or ambiance or overall spatial feel of the settings stand out nearly as clearly as the conversation or plot points that took place in them. The specificity of the setting afford a sense of hyper-realism that occasionally leave me feeling as though Olive actually exists — a character in her own right, living in the world, free of the artist’s hand. At the same time, some of the book felt overdrawn, overmanipulated — especially the tenuous, deus-ex-machina-type linkages between characters/stories in the book and some of Olive’s interactions with others. (For example, her negotiations with Halima Butterfly and Betty felt tokenized and cloyingly Pollyanna/simplistic in an otherwise complex novel.)
I left the book feeling similar to how I felt after reading the first novel, Olive Kitteridge: impressed, not entirely unhappy I’d passed my time with it, but also unsure of what I’d gained in its reading. The books are unremittingly gloomy in their insistence upon the fundamental loneliness of the human condition. All of these characters, trudging along their own plot-lines, feeling alienated in their heartache and travail. And yet! They are not truly alone. There are others experiencing parallel heartache and travail — estranged parents, divorcees, people in search of escape, people trapped in relationships — and if they could only just peep over the fence, they’d realize how un-alone they are. This fundamental irony throbs — painfully — throughout the entire novel: you are not alone, but you feel alone. Strout does offer us some light at the end of the tunnel, as there are meaningful relationships developed, some redemptions, and many scenes in which we realize how sensitive and malleable humans are and therefore how important our interactions are with one another.
There was one line in the book that stopped me dead in my tracks:
“For Betty to have carried in her heart this love for Jerry Skyler, what did that mean? It was to be taken seriously, Olive saw this. All love was to be taken seriously.”
The movie Love, Actually achieves a similar revelation, and it is a beautiful and important one that bears noting. In Strout’s hands, we understand that there are many permutations of love in the world — some unrequited, some quiet and unremarked, others complex and decades-long — but all of them bear deep significance. All love is non-trivial, no matter how frivolous it may seem.
What did you think? And what are you reading?
I’m still working to finish Homegoing, which is beautiful but slow-going and the proliferation of storylines is equal parts staggeringly impressive and overwhelming from a readership standpoint, especially when read in little draughts as I’ve been doing.
+Ulla has my number this season — I love this loose-knit sweater. It was at one point available in a dress form that was ABSOLUTELY stunning but has since sold out everywhere. Why didn’t I jump when I had the chance?
+Dying over these Chloe-esque Mary Janes for little girls!
+Love this statement blouse.
+If you need a last-minute way to transform one of your little one’s outfits into something festive: this tartan headband!
+I cannot get over how precious micro is in these pajamas. I could just eat him!
+Ordered Mr. Magpie one of these red knit beanies. What man doesn’t look great in a red knit beanie?!
+Also bought Mr. Magpie a few pairs of Sperry boat shoes — he goes through at least a pair or two every year (!) — and they are currently marked down to almost 50% off.
+This sweatshirt was just re-stocked! Hurry! It always sells out crazy fast.
+Eyeing these trousers.