Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Again, Olive

After I read Olive Kitteridge several years ago I went ahead and, over the course of a few years, read everything else Elizabeth Strout had written or subsequently wrote.  None of the other books are as good as Olive Kitteridge.

The author has just written a sequel to Olive Kitteridge called Olive, Again.  Like its predecessor, Olive, Again is a series of stories in which Olive is either a central or peripheral character.  And also like the original, the book is beautiful and moving and does what any good novel should do: help the reader think.  In this case think, as Olive does, about the past--past decisions, behaviors and mistakes--and how this past propels us towards where we wind up.

When I was in the hospital in August I found it off-putting to have the nurses tell me that everything I was doing was "excellent" and "perfect" and "fantastic" because I knew that some of the things I did for which I received this praise were not excellent, perfect or fantastic. And, in fact, they were at best minor accomplishments. I'd lean to my left so a nurse could pluck something from under my body and the move was "perfect."  I managed to stand up next to an 18 year old in order to put a few drops of urine into a plastic cup and I heard: "excellent!"  I managed to eat something on the second day after surgery and that accomplishment was greeted with the assessment:"fantastic."

Well while I am happy with much of what I have done in my life, I know that there have been decisions that have not always been fantastic.  And in this book the reader witnesses not only what happens to Olive, but to many neighbors and friends, who are in pain because of goofy, inconsiderate, and foolish behaviors. Yet we all have a shot to right ourselves and at least attempt to purge the pain fueled by our past.

Some problems with the novel: This book is in large part an update on what happened to characters who appeared in the first book.   That seems fair, but there are also at least two references to characters from other novels that Strout has written.  Even for someone who has read all her books, it is not easy recalling enough of the details of these prior books to appreciate fully the stories about these characters. This was most noticeable with the story called "Exiles" about the Burgess family.  The only reason I caught the reference was because the name "Burgess" rang a bell as it is in the title, The Burgess Boys. In the last story, "Friend", the central character Isabelle is from the novel Isabelle and Amy,  I barely remembered that book.

In the original, there were a few stories where Olive is a peripheral character. That is true in the sequel but there are more of these. There are, however, enough about Olive to understand how she evolves and how she realizes that this evolution is important.

At one point Olive tells young Cindy Coombs, who is sick with cancer, that the spouses of widows and widowers become saints. When Cindy recalls a bad memory and fears her children and spouse will remember a particular negative Christmas incident after she's gone, Olive tells her: "Cindy Coombs, there's not one goddamn person in the world who doesn't have a bad memory or two to take them through life."

Tis true and the message in these stories is that while there is a whole lot of emotional pain in our universe, and we have to acknowledge our complicity in creating such pain, we should not allow ourselves to be disabled by bad decisions, we have to look at them, and take steps--maybe baby steps to move on in a healthy way.

Why do we read? We read because of books like this one.  Reading can be escape reading, but it also can present characters, like Olive, who can be a catalyst for our own introspection.  Olive regrets how she treated Henry.  She knows now what a good man he was.  Fergus and Ethel come to realize how inane was their behavior within their marriage.  Jack acknowledges that he treated his daughter poorly.

We all need to take a look at ourselves. Even a stubborn Yankee like Olive Kitteridge can come around and acknowledge our responsibility to the people in our lives, and ourselves. And assess how much of what we have done is really "excellent" or "terrific" or "perfect."  Then try to purge the bad tendencies and enjoy this wonderful shot we have at life.

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