By Elizabeth Strout
Read Nov 2019
This reader finds the title somewhat unfortunate as it suggested this should be read as a second installment about Olive Kitteridge. However, this reader believes the thirteen stories in this volume allow a person unfamiliar with Olive Kitteridge or her neighbors and friends to participate fully in her world of Crosby during this period of her life.
Strout masterfully, thoughtfully, and empathetically creates a picture of Olive from shortly after the death her husband, Henry, of four plus decades, through the next ten years—from about age 75 to 85. Most of the other characters are also in this approximate age group or at least nearing retirement.
The book opens with a story about Jack Kennison and so introduces us to this man who will eventually become Olive’s second husband. We learn the circumstances leading to his move with (now deceased) wife Betsy to Crosby, Maine. Jack was initially asked to take some time away from Harvard following an accusation of sexual harassment. Jack acknowledges to us an affair with a younger faculty member and that he eventually voted against her tenure, along with other members of the department. The school settles with the woman and Jack retires. He and Betsy move to Crosby, Maine to be away from all of that. We learn he and Betsy had married decades previously when both were on the rebound from failed relationships. Their marriage wasn’t a classic “happy” one, although they had enjoyed many happy times. He now misses Betsy deeply, even after he learns that she had carried on an affair with a former boyfriend for some period of time during their marriage. We learn their only child, a now middle aged daughter, came out to them as a lesbian. This revelation fractured the relationship between father and daughter although not apparently that of mother and daughter. Jack is wrestling with all of this and then manages to get stopped for speeding, an incident that doesn’t go smoothly.
Thus in a matter of twenty-one pages that comprise the opening story, the stage is set for viewing scenes of people facing their past choices, both good and bad, for missing lost spouses regardless of the happiness of their time together, for regretting lost opportunities for better relationships with their spouse and with their children, for dealing with bodies that are losing capabilities, for having medical issues, and for trying to avoid loneliness as their world is changing in ways they can’t control. The stories are sober, lovely, refreshing, and occasionally uplifting.
Olive misses Henry terribly and Jack misses Betsy similarly but sharing this grief openly is something that initially brings them together. They are both wiser and more mature than when they married their long-term spouses so they are pleased and feel lucky that they can turn arguments into long useful discussions. Jack can tell Olive he loves her for who she is but sometimes it would be helpful if she was a little less Olive with him. Olive tells us she feels Henry was her first husband but Jack is her real husband. Jack comments to us through the narrator that Olive has become less anxious after they’ve been married for a while and he is very happy about this.
After Jack dies Olive faces life alone again, this time in Jack’s house which no longer feels like theirs. Now Strout explores more deeply the lives of single older people and the paths that they never thought they would need to take as their ability to “safely live” alone degrades. Strout is remarkably articulate and sincere as she has Olive face issues such as “those foolish diapers for old people” and staying in independent living versus being sent “over the bridge” to the other part of the “retirement” facility.
Strout’s pictures of Olive’s relationship with her son, Christopher, were remarkably vivid for this reader. Christopher is now a successful podiatrist in New York City and lives there with his second wife, her two children from two previous relationships, and their own two children, the older of which is named Henry for his grandfather. They have never been to Olive’s home before this story’s three day visit. The first night, after the daughter-in-law and children have gone to bed, Chris and Olive sit and talk in Olive’s living room, or more accurately, Olive listens as Chris talks. “Olive didn’t care what he talked about. … On and on he talked, her son. Olive was tired but stifled a yawn. She would stay here forever to hear this. He could recite the alphabet to her and she would sit here and listen to it.” But of course the high hopes Olive has for the visit, although she has no idea how to really prepare for the invasion of all these children into her house, aren’t met. Chris takes poorly the news of Olive and Jack’s impending marriage Olive realizes her family isn’t like others—those where children come to visit with their children and everyone laughs and is happy. She now thinks about their time, Henry, Olive and Chris, in the house Henry and Olive had built and that is now torn down for a new build, “never , ever realizing that she herself had been raising a motherless child, now a long, long way from home.”
Some stories bring in characters from other Strout books. She provides a story in which Jim Burgess and wife Helen, long-term residents of New York City, visit Jim’s brother, Bob, and his second wife who live in Crosby. The Burgess Boys brothers visit their sister, Susan in nearby Shirley Falls. Olive becomes friends with Isabelle from Isabelle and Amy. No familiarity with either book is required to appreciate these stories (this reader can accurate attest to this as she has not read Isabelle and Amy) and their relevant themes. Strout is very gifted in her ability to create characters “on the spot” in short stories and later pick them up and continue their story elsewhere, requiring nothing from the reader except their interest in engaging with them.
Olive isn’t a central character or even a peripheral one in all the stories. “The End of Civil War Days”, in eleven pages, dives into the lives of an estranged couple still living together thirty-five years after Fergus’s affair (because “back then there was no forgiveness and no divorce”). An annual visit from their older daughter from New York City throws their lives into turmoil as they try to understand her chosen profession. “Cleaning” is about a high-school aged girl living in an apartment with her depressed and emotionally distant widowed mother. Shortly before his death, her father had confided that she had been his favorite child while her sister was her mother’s favorite child. The girl cleans houses for several Crosby residents and we learn about her relationships with her clients. Strout gives us an interesting story of someone who just wants to be seen and valued by someone.
The photo associated with this blog was chosen because Olive reflects on her life several times in this volume. She considers her behaviors with husband Henry, son Chris, and husband Jack. She sometimes understands herself or her motivations but often she doesn’t. Strout doesn’t tie up loose ends for the reader nor answers for us the questions Olive asks about herself.
When Strout was asked in an interview whether Olive might reappear again, for instance in a book about becoming Olive, Strout indicated she didn’t think so, but she couldn’t fully know that. This reader is content with this being the last book about Olive but this reader will also continue reading Strout’s work and hopes it will continue in this form—somewhat connected and extremely rich stories that provide scenes in people’s lives that shed light on universal topics and themes we don’t always expect to explore but are glad when we do.