Olive Again

Olive, Again: A Novel

What if you’re just not that important?

A tear literally came to my eye as I finished this book. Which completes the story of Olive Kitteridge, the protagonist of Elizabeth Strout’s book of that name back in 2008. Yes, they made a mini-series of that book back on HBO five years ago, but Frances McDormand, as great an actress as she is, could never be Olive Kitteridge, who is large and imposing and…

A creation of your mind.

You read these books and you can see them. Not that I have a fully-developed picture of Olive. She’s tall and she’s large, but I’m not sure of her shape, she’s imposing, but she’s not beautiful, like most people in the world, she’s just living her existence, in small town Maine.

I’ve lived in small towns, I never want to do so again, because everybody knows your name and they develop a notion of who you are which is nearly impossible to change. And you keep bumping into them, saying hi to people you haven’t talked to in eons, or avoiding their gaze. That’s what I love about the city, the anonymity. Furthermore, no one in Los Angeles cares who you are because there are real stars all around.

But everybody is hustling to make it in the City of Angels, they’re trying to become famous.

But this didn’t used to be the case elsewhere.

But now, with the internet, with social media, seemingly everybody wants to become known, and hopefully rich. There was this story in the “Times” about school TikTok clubs. Yup, trying to go viral. The platforms may change, but everybody today wants to reach beyond their circle.

Of course there are oldsters who are left out, who tell you they use a flip-phone and don’t go on social media, but most boomers, and they are the old people these days, have a Facebook account, Instagram too, they want to know what their peers are up to, and they want to post the highlights of their lives to burnish their image and make other people jealous. Every picture tells a story, but not necessarily the true one. You never know what goes on behind closed doors, you never know what is truly going on in someone else’s relationship.

“Olive Again” is a set of linked short stories. The only thread is Olive herself. But, at the end, even characters from Strout’s first book appear, but that’s just the cherry on top as opposed to the essence.

We get a picture of lives in Maine. Have you been there? I’m not talking Portland, but beyond. The towns get ever smaller and smaller. And the weather gets worse and worse. And you either stay or you leave. Either you like the nip in the air or you can’t wait to get away from it. Yes, there is something to being hearty, to enduring the elements, it makes you feel alive! I don’t get cold weather in the city, with its concrete canyons, but in the hinterlands? A brisk winter morning, with the sun shining, it can only make you smile, it invigorates you. As does a day with precipitation. When a blizzard pulls a shade over visibility, when flurries set your mind a-thinking. When rain makes you feel warm and cozy inside.

Olive stayed in Maine. Her son moved to New York City, but she held fast.

But there are others who go from the city to the country, usually retirees, they paid their dues and now they want a slower lifestyle, they want to retreat from the hustle and bustle.

Like Jack Kennison.

At some point you become over-the-hill. Sure, you can get plastic surgery and try to fool yourself, as Lowell George sang, but most people know the score, that you just can’t let go. But letting go is freeing. That’s another point in this book, a woman reaches a certain age and she goes unseen, which is also freeing, the catcalls are history, yet so are the favors. And since Olive’s scribe is a woman, Elizabeth Strout, she can utter truisms, depict women’s thoughts in a way men no longer can, for fear of backlash, for fear of being me-tooed. Strout talks about one women’s enormous breasts. A waitress’s huge behind. This is how women think. As much as men scrutinize women’s bodies, women do so even more. With men it’s a pecking order of money, with women it’s a pecking order of looks. Women are constantly comparing themselves to each other.

Jack taught at Harvard. But he was blown out in a sexual harassment case and he’s gotten fat, with a huge belly, and his wife has died and he’s no longer a looker. What happens when you no longer count? Where does that leave you in the world?

Pining for Olive Kitteridge.

Elizabeth Strout’s depiction of Jack is genius. His self-knowledge, his attitude. We’re all prickly about something, we’re all getting away from something, we’re all wondering where we fit in this world, and almost all of this goes unexpressed, it’s in our heads, and it’s in this book. That’s the glory of fiction, getting inside one’s brain, their thoughts, hopes and failures. Kinda like Elton John says what attracts him to music is melancholy. Yup, he said that in yesterday’s “New York Times” Book Review. I resonated. Those are the songs that get me most, that touch my soul, that’s why I constantly play Reg’s “Sixty Years On” and “The King Must Die.” As well as “Where To Now St. Peter?” and so many more. Sure, there’s fulfillment in the upbeat, but it’s these melancholy tunes that touch our soul.

And these melancholy books that reach us too.

Oh, you can read self-help, bios… All the successful write them, as if you could follow in their footsteps, as if the only thing lacking in your quest for success is a blueprint from someone who’s been there. But as much as we are alike, we are even more different. Your life is your own, you’ve got to figure it out for yourself. The key is to not be burdened by the viewpoints of others, worrying about what they’ll say, how they’ll tell you to be. Which is why when your parents die the silver lining is the freedom from judgment, now you can do it your way, I hope. Not that you can completely unburden yourself from the past, as the book says, “The things that happen in childhood do not go away.” Unfortunately that is true. Our whole lives are tainted by our upbringing.

And characters in the book say they’ve been bad parents. That their kids are bad children. Reach a certain age and you can own the truth, even speak it.

And not everybody came from a happy home. And you lose your job and then your identity, never mind your income. And those who make it might be unhappy. That’s the thing about life, at best you can know your own.

Not that the book is full of aphorisms, the truth is in the characters’ lives.

But I loved when Jack accuses Olive of being a snob. He’s old and wants to fly first class. Olive can’t do that, she sees it as a waste of money, she judges anyone who ponies up the exorbitant fee. And then Jack says:

“You think being a reverse snob is not being a snob?”

Eureka! People are so proud of being poor. As if it covers up for lack of motivation, as if it proves to those who’ve succeeded that they’re flawed.

I’m not talking about billionaires here. But Olive struggles in coach, on the way back she flies up front and realizes how wonderful it is.

Kinda like Olive chastising Jack for eating from the minibar.

My father died and my mother could finally make a phone call from her hotel room, my dad always went downstairs and used the pay phone.

Olive is not really likable, and that’s one of the things that makes the book so great. We constantly hear in art that there’s no character people can relate to. Well, can you relate to everybody, anybody, in real life? Sometimes everybody’s a villain, everybody’s a loser. And the truth is, everybody makes mistakes, does bad things, they may not own them, but they do them.

And as you get older, after you’ve earned your money and raised your kids, then what? Do you get along with your spouse? Did you have an affair? What do you tell and not?

And the reason all these people interact is because they live in the same small town, or its environs. That’s one thing you do lack in the city. Move away, and nobody cares, your absence is not noted, but in a small town…

Despite Strout’s rep, despite the HBO show, you cannot feel “Olive Again” in society yet. Let’s put it this way, “Olive Again” has 74 reviews on Amazon, its predecessor, “Olive Kitteridge,” has 1,940. The newspapers come and go, the hype is here then gone, what remains? Bob Iger’s book has been featured everywhere, but not “Olive Again.” Oh, the ink is coming, but the point is a book permeates society slowly, it gains steam, it becomes a point of discussion.

And most men are left out. They’re too macho to read fiction. It’s got to be bios and business, all the time. But the truth is you learn more from fiction, from real people. Think how to sell to the people in Crosby, Maine, as opposed to Iger and Dalio and the rest telling you how to do it.

So, as time goes by, you’re going to hear more and more about “Olive Again,” the train has just left the station. You can get on now and be ahead of the curve.

But that’s not really what it’s about.

Reading “Olive Again” is a singular experience. It’s just about you and the book. It’s about how you feel while you’re reading it. And the story. If you’re from the Iowa school, style trumps plot, and that’s topsy-turvy. You don’t have to wade through a slew of description, fancy words, to get “Olive Again,” the story keeps flowing, the time keeps passing.

Like life.

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