Magpie Book Club: Elizabeth Strout’s Olive, Again.

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.

Post Scripts.

+A cute striped tee.

+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?

+A pretty and inexpensive sequined dress for NYE.

+Dying over these Chloe-esque Mary Janes for little girls!

+Love this statement blouse.

+The art of tsundoku.

+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!

+More book reviews

+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.

+Christmas gifts for loved ones.

+This sweatshirt was just re-stocked! Hurry! It always sells out crazy fast.

+Eyeing these trousers.

9 Comments

  1. I haven’t read either Olive book, but I did read My Name Is Lucy Barton, and it just depressed me so I don’t have plans to read any of her other works. Lately I’ve been reading through a bag of hand me down books from my dad, which are hit and miss. Currently enjoying Enigma by Robert Harris. Also listening to a variety of Christmas books by Jenny Colgan and Anne Perry. I’ve liked most of Perry’s Christmas stories, but I do not recommend The Christmas Odyssey.

    1. Yes – very depressing. Thanks for these other suggestions! Let me know if anything stands out from your dad’s stack 🙂

  2. I too just finished reading Olive, Again and I did not like it. I found it depressing and lonely. I found the style of writing to be very coarse and offputting. Too many other good/great books out there to read! (Hint,hint…Like Lauren Bacall’s By Myself!!)

    1. I know what you mean by “course” — there’s a cold bluntness to it that feels as though it’s meant to be Olive’s own voice/tone. Not my cup of tea, either. xx

  3. Interesting! I’ve seen Olive, Again around, of course — I go to bookstores quite frequently — but haven’t ever read anything by Strout. I don’t know that I’ll bump these onto my list, either …

    I recently finished a slightly schmaltzy British tearjerker called If Only I Could Tell You (by Hannah Beckerman). The pacing was excellent but I felt that some of the characters could have been better-developed. Some of the plotlines were predictable, but others took me by surprise. Overall, a worthwhile read — I’d give it 3.75 stars.

    Next up is The Gifted School by Bruce Holsinger, which I’m so excited about. I picked it up at the Strand this week & forgot how much I love buying used hardcovers there — such a good alternative for waiting for them to come out in paperback! Ha. I buy so many books that I try to save on them, where I can.

    I’m looking for a good nonfiction book to take on vacation with me next week … maybe essays, or something historical? My friend gave me a copy of In the Garden of Beasts and I want to try that, though it might be a bit serious for a beachy vacation. If you have any other recs, I’m all ears! xx

    1. Maybe something by Bill Bryson? I really liked In a Sunburned Country, which could be sort of beach vacation-adjacent (if that’s a thing??). Very interesting, funny, and mostly lighthearted, other than a short but heartbreaking section about the Aborigines.

    2. MK, I had to comment because ironically, I read “In the Garden of Beasts” on vacation in the Bahamas several years ago! And it was not too heavy/serious, it was a page turner– I remember that it read more like a thriller than anything else. Also, I assume being a such a loyal Magpie that you’ve read Bad Blood already, but if not, that should definitely be nonfiction pick number one!

    3. I haven’t read nonfiction in ages, though my sister keeps begging me to read “The Moment of Lift” by Melinda Gates with her. I did like the Michelle Obama memoir, too!

      xx

    4. Stephanie, thanks so much for the Bryson recommendation! I haven’t read anything by him in aaaages, so that’s a good idea.

      Gina, thank you so much for the vote of confidence for In the Garden of Beasts! You’ve pushed me over the edge 🙂

      And Jen, the Gates sounds intriguing, and I LOVED Michelle Obama’s memoir! I saw that her publisher made a limited signed edition this holiday season — what a great gift! xx

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