Book Report: Olive Again

Rating: 5 out of 5.

I didn’t think I’d love the writing in a book as much as I loved Olive Kitteridge, but here I am, prepared to gush over Olive Again, by Elizabeth Strout, the woman of the bestest words ever. I keep reading paragraphs over and over, just marveling at how Strout manages to capture the inner lives of her characters so succinctly, yet evocatively. As I read her work, I am constantly seeing vivid scenes and smelling all the smells of Maine, yet she doesn’t write long, descriptive paragraphs full of endless adjectives and adverbs. Nope. She uses just enough words to do the job. That’s a writer, all right.

As always, Olive appears in each chapter, though she is often not the protagonist, and most chapters aren’t from her point of view. You get to meet many new people, as well as some of the folks from the previous book, and see how small things affect their lives so profoundly.

You learn that people really, really, don’t understand what’s going on in other people’s lives, and especially in their minds. I really needed some of this knowledge this week, as I come to grips with the fact that there are people I have known all my life who live in an entirely different reality from mine, and for whom the facts as I see them just aren’t relevant to them. It’s the same in Crosby, Maine.

Thanks to Strout, I learned many new definitions of love, too, and how it fits into people’s lives and fills the gaps in their loneliness. The point in both the Olive books seems to be that bad things happening isn’t the worst part of people’s lives, it’s a lack of connection to others. I think she’s absolutely right about that. Here’s what the character Bobby says in the “Exiles” chapter:

And it came to him then that 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.

p. 195

If I were writing an actual book report, I’d cite Bobby’s musing as Strout’s “thesis statement.” That’s the essence of both the Olive books.

And what fills my heart with comfort is that each individual you glimpse in this book finds their own reason to keep going and to figure out their path in life. I’m going to borrow the reason that Suzanne states in the chapter called “Helped.”

I think our job – maybe even our duty – is…to bear the burden of the mystery with as much grace as we can.

p. 116

This type of spirituality permeates Strout’s writings. She sees the divine in Nature and never lets the reader forget it for one second. I’ll see her sparkling waters and intensely yellow autumn leaves often in my own mind.

This was the book I needed to be reading right now, today. I hope you pick it up and it speaks to you, wherever you are on your life’s path.

Book Report: Olive Kitteridge

Rating: 5 out of 5.

A friend recommended I read the books by Elizabeth Strout on Olive Kitteridge, because I said I was interested in good character development. I ordered them, and just finished Olive Kitteridge. It’s a quiet masterpiece.

The book is a series of short stories, sort of, though the same people in a small Maine town appear and re-appear. Olive, a large sorta grumpy woman is the pivotal character who appears in each story. It’s fun to wait and see how she turns up and how the other people perceive her.

I love how normal and real the people in the stories are, but also how they each have personal tragedies that shape them. One theme I detected in the book was of people daring to do something unexpected or out of character. It usually works out well, but not always. It reminded me of my own attempts to get out of my shell, tell my truth, or speak up. Only mine tend to backfire. Never mind…

I did find many beautiful phrasings and observations about daily life, beauty, and appreciation of your current moment. But mostly it was about feeling lonely.

When he was in town, it seemed he saw couples everywhere; arms tucked against each other in sweet intimacy; he felt he saw light flash from their faces, and it was the light of life, people were living.

Starving, p. 99

And she has an amazing way of showing how disconnected and lonely people can let themselves be. I felt like framing a couple things Strout has her characters think or say.

It’s just that I’m the kind of person that thinks if you took a map of the whole world and put a pin in it for every person, there wouldn’t be a pin for me

Criminal, p. 236

What I get from Strout’s interrelated tales is that we can all feel our separateness deeply, and we all seek intimacy in our own ways. I’m grateful for all the glimpses into everyday intimacy that the stories in Olive Kitteridge provide. I will probably turn to this book often just to re-read some of the words and slip back into the feelings they elicit.

Great book. Thanks so much to the friend who recommended it!