In Olive, Again, her seventh book, Elizabeth Strout returns to her character Olive Kitteridge, a maths teacher in small-town Maine. A number of the chapters in Strout’s first, eponymous book about the character had already appeared in print as short stories before the novel’s publication in 2008, so that Olive Kitteridge is really half a novel, half a collection of stories; Olive, Again and most of Strout’s other books have the same hybrid form. Her work progresses by accretion and overlap; she puts a fragment of story in one place, then picks it up somewhere else for fuller development. Characters recur in different contexts. The Nicely daughters figure in My Name Is Lucy Barton (2016) and Anything Is Possible (2017); the brothers who were the main protagonists of The Burgess Boys (2013) turn up in Olive, Again, where the mother from Strout’s first novel, Amy and Isabelle (1998), also puts in a surprise appearance. Characters gossiped about or glimpsed in one chapter become the primary protagonists in another. In Olive, Again, Kitteridge has retired and her forbearing pharmacist husband, Henry, is dead; the book opens with another bereaved spouse, Jack Kennison, whom we met in the last chapter of Olive Kitteridge. Jack and Olive, both prickly and intolerant, are warily finding their way towards mutual consolation.
The setting of Strout’s work is very often her native Maine: imaginary Crosby on the coast, or nearby (and more depressed) Shirley Falls, whose textile mills are still at work in Amy and Isabelle, but have been torn down by the time of Olive, Again. My Name Is Lucy Barton and Anything Is Possible are set in a different small town, this time in Illinois. Characters and stories may escape to New York – following Strout’s trajectory in adult life – but they usually find themselves drawn back to their rural origins. And the closely knit weave of connected lives in her work isn’t merely a formal device, it represents the nature of small-town life – everyone watching everyone else. Gossip is saturated with disapproval, resentment, class hierarchy; everybody’s ranked according to their job, their education, which church they go to, what their family name betrays about them. Some celebrate ancestors who came over with the Pilgrims, others are Irish Catholics, or ‘Francos’, French-Canadians: Olive’s mother, she says, ‘hated hearing people speaking French on the city buses’. Now there are recently arrived Somalis – ‘Somalians’ some locals call them – in Shirley Falls. In The Burgess Boys, a teenager throws a pig’s head into a mosque during Ramadan.
The gossiping and the knowing in Strout’s fiction can be poisonous, but it can also be lifesaving. Olive watches her neighbours closely, and has taught maths to a number of them. She knows why Kevin Coulson, whose mother killed herself, has parked beside the marina and is sitting watching the sea: he’s thinking about blowing his brains out. When she sees Cindy Coombs agonising over which brand of butter to buy in the supermarket she knows that she’s undergoing chemotherapy, takes her home and keeps her company. The Illinois community in My Name Is Lucy Barton has a more vicious edge: the Barton children grew up knowing that they smelled and looked wrong, that no one wanted to sit next to them at school. Yet when Pete Barton is living reclusively at the end of a dirt road, Tommy Guptill (who used to employ his unstable father) befriends him and involves him in the running of a soup kitchen.
These portraits of small-town America, with their celebration of what’s cussed and knotty and kind in their inhabitants, along with their criticism of what’s mean and narrow and crazy, derive from an aspect of the American sensibility that doesn’t have an exact equivalent in the UK. British myths of rural origin are different, because of the disparity of geographical scale, our different history of land use and ownership and our centralised politics. Strout’s small places have a distinctive cultural autonomy, a strong idea of themselves, even as their economy turns out to be fatally dependant on outside forces. Her stories have resonated so strongly in America – she won a Pulitzer Prize for Olive Kitteridge – because of the balancing act she more or less pulls off: bringing modern liberal values and an exacting critique of class and inequality to bear on subject matter buried deep in the foundations of America’s self-image, and which might be perceived as conservative. The characters in Olive, Again who uncritically celebrate their Americanness are satirised: the bleak English teacher Mrs Ringrose dressing up as a Pilgrim at Thanksgiving, or the foolish Fergus MacPherson fixing his Civil War moustache with hairspray, ‘dressing up like a Union soldier and marching back and forth on Saturday and shooting a rifle – they were blanks, of course’.
Olive Kitteridge embodies Strout’s ambivalence. We’re not invited to identify with her, or to imagine that she’s a stand-in for the author. Olive has never escaped from Crosby, nor has she ever tried; for all that she sometimes rages against it, and despite her sense of herself as an awkward misfit, she is wholly and stubbornly made of the rugged, lovely, limiting piece of New England where she was born. The narration moves in and out of Olive’s perceptions and her language. When, late in Olive Kitteridge, she visits her son, Christopher, in New York, we’re meant to imagine ourselves inside her wary suspicion of the city and of Christopher’s second wife and family; at the same time, we comprehend, with all Strout’s sophisticated distance, that Olive’s suspicion is self-defeating. It’s a result of her anxiety and fatalism, her tendency to punish herself. After an outing to have ice cream with her grandchildren, she can’t bear the fact that her son didn’t tell her she’d spilled butterscotch sauce on her blouse; she feels old and foolish. Her rage often reflects physical unease, a sense of her bodily self being exposed and humiliated – at Christopher’s wedding to his first wife, for instance, she overheard her new daughter-in-law laughing at the homemade dress she was so proud of. The scene she makes over the butterscotch sauce, demanding to go home early, seems unjust and crazy. ‘“Mom,” Christopher says, in the new jargon he has learned in the city, “I’m not going to take responsibility for the extreme capriciousness of your moods. If something happened to upset you, you should tell me. That way we can talk.”’ Olive can only answer: ‘“You’ve never talked your whole damn life. Why are you starting now?” It was the therapist, she realised suddenly. Of course.’
Olive can be impossible, explosive and cruel. She uses her intelligence and her scepticism to hurt her gentle husband Henry, the evasive Christopher and anyone else who crosses her. There are times, in Olive Kitteridge, when she treats Henry with a verbal violence bordering on abuse. ‘You, Mr Head Deacon Claptrap Nice Guy,’ she calls him. When she’s raging Olive always knows the right knife to twist; she can read character with penetration and she’s sometimes right, or at least half-right, in what she says; but she doesn’t know how to express herself without scorching, or how to show affection or, indeed, how to accept it. In Olive Kitteridge, she and Henry are taken hostage when small-time crooks raid the local hospital for drugs. One of the nurses held alongside them is saying Hail Marys, and Olive can’t help rapping out: ‘God, will you shut up with that crap.’ When Henry remonstrates, Olive erupts in a rant about Henry’s mother and her religion, nearly getting them both shot. Again, part of her agony in this scene derives from her physical exposure, ageing and overweight, unable – her hands tied with duct tape – to adjust the blue hospital gown gaping over her nakedness: ‘she seemed to be one moist, furious sack of horror.’ The boy holding them hostage can’t stand it either. He puts down his gun and reties Olive’s gown, ashamed for her.
Readers have enjoyed the challenge Olive sets them, relishing what’s unforgivable in her tirades and the energy of her pent-up rage. If there’s any feminist diagnosis at work – Olive as thwarted woman – then it’s muted and complex, tangled up with other inequities. Strout’s writing is often fuelled by indignation, but it’s directed at the injustices of class and poverty rather than patriarchy. On the whole, with some notable exceptions, she is kind to her men. In Olive, Again, old Mr Ringrose pays Kayley Callaghan, an eighth-grader who cleans his house, to unbutton her blouse and show him her breasts. But the story’s hostility is reserved for Mrs Ringrose, whose decor is faux-Pilgrim and who makes Kayley wash the floors on her hands and knees, despising her because she’s ‘Irish’. The sexual exchange with the old man comes to exist as a hopeful secret in Kayley’s lonely life, and she grieves for him when he’s taken into a nursing home.
There’s a difficulty in sustaining a character as extravagant as Olive without her occasionally lapsing into a type; in Olive, Again it sometimes feels as though her scolding has become a routine, enjoyable rather than unsettling. The writing is fonder than before and more forgiving. Some of that change might be attributable to the development of Olive’s character, a softening that comes with age and chastening experience; she also meets her match in grumpy hostility in her second husband, Jack Kennison. There’s some nice comedy in her conflicts with his Republicanism, his Harvard-educated presumption, his casual homophobia (his daughter is a lesbian); meanwhile, he releases Olive from the anguish of her solitude. When Jack roars with laughter,
what a sound it was; Olive felt a physical sensation, a thrill. At the very same time she felt terror, as though a match had been lit on her and she had been soaked in oil. The terror, the thrill of his laughter – it was nightmarish, but also as though a huge can she had been stuffed into had just opened.
Strout’s treatment of their imperfect love and mutual adjustment – both of them haunted by their past, and by the spouses of their youth, whom they didn’t treat well – is tender and unillusioned.
In the first story, Jack is stopped by police for speeding on the highway and humiliated, just ‘an old man with a sloppy belly’, incontinent after a prostate operation; he seems to see for a moment that the policeman who stopped him has an erection. Thinking about sex and power, Jack remembers strolling about the campus at Harvard: ‘People did look at him then, for all those years, he would see students glance at him with deference, and also women, they looked at him.’ As he stands obediently with his hands up, he watches a line of ants beside his shoe ‘making their way through a crack in the pavement, piece of sand by piece of sand from the place where his tyre had crushed so many of them, to – Where? A new spot?’ But we lose Jack’s perspective about halfway through the book, and subsequently miss it. In quite a few of the stories Olive makes no appearance or only moves in briefly from the margins, often – perhaps too often – to work wonders: offering comradely words to Kayley Callaghan, delivering a woman’s baby in the back of her car, talking Cindy Coombs back into love with life. There’s something in Jack and Olive’s savagery, their cynicism and their debunking realism, that pulls against a different tendency in Strout’s writing – towards an emotional vibrato in the material and the sentences, homiletic and ecstatic.
It’s a problem, for example, in ‘Helped’, which concerns the privileged Larkin family. We met them in Olive Kitteridge; they ‘always thought they were better than others’. Now Louise Larkin is in the Golden Bridge Rest Home (‘that means she’s gone completely dopey-dope,’ Olive says), the Larkin son is in prison for murder, and their house has burned down with old Roger Larkin inside, after drug addicts broke in to steal copper and cook meth. Disasters multiply: we learn that Roger had been abusing his demented wife, and that their daughter Suzanne is afraid her husband will divorce her. And that Roger invested in apartheid, and paid for an abortion for his mistress; oh, and it turns out that Louise was sexually abusing her son. At the end of Suzanne’s litany of troubles, as if they weren’t enough, the kindly old family lawyer adds in his own parents who died in the camps. It’s hard to see past this pile-up to the point of the story, and there are places elsewhere in Strout’s work when the accumulation of catastrophe only just avoids being comical. This is country gossip with its lurid secrets and schadenfreude; but it sometimes feels as though, when the prose flags, another sensational twist helps to revive it.
It isn’t just the geography and sociology that give Strout’s books their American sensibility. There’s a tradition, stronger in the US than in the UK, which thinks of fiction as teaching, or even preaching. The imaginary novelist Sarah Payne in My Name Is Lucy Barton says that it’s her job to ‘report on the human condition, to tell us who we are and what we think and what we do’. There’s something odd about this portrayal of Sarah Payne. She is a mentor figure, important to Lucy, who’s also a novelist, because she was the first to give Lucy permission to write and to reassure her that she was good at it. They cross paths initially in a dress shop and afterwards Lucy dwells luxuriantly on Sarah’s appealing self-doubt, her attractive face and hair: not so much desiring her as desiring to be her, or be like her. In fact the identities of mentor and narrator blur somewhat (or perhaps two diffident, attractive novelists are just too many to imagine in one novel). Lucy goes to hear Sarah speak at the New York Public Library, then takes a class with her in Arizona; on both occasions, you might expect to see Sarah as an authority figure, but Lucy instead describes her as martyred and suffering, painfully misunderstood, cruelly exposed to the hostility of her audience or students. ‘I watched as Sarah Payne became exhausted almost immediately … It took everything out of her to teach that class … I don’t think I have ever seen before or since a face that showed its exhaustion so clearly.’ That seems odd coming from Lucy, whose father was an agricultural labourer affected by war trauma, and whose mother was a dressmaker. Of course teaching can be tiring enough, and writing too: but one wouldn’t want to make too much of it.
There’s a strain of almost masochistic language in Strout’s work. It isn’t only Olive’s body that is sagging, gaping and exposed. In ‘Helped’, Suzanne wants ‘to wail her head off, but her weeping came out only in little fits and starts. It was like waiting to throw up, she thought.’ In another chapter, a woman falls and breaks two ribs, her arm is in a cast; when she weeps her brother-in-law (who is in love with her) helps her to blow her nose, feeling ‘an ocean of sadness sway through him’. Lucy Barton’s novel deals with her time in a New York hospital, and her dream-like narration enacts a voluptuous submission to sickness:
The doctor held my wrist to take my pulse, and when he gently lifted my hospital gown, in order to check the scar, as he did each day, I watched his hands, thick-fingered and lovely, his plain gold wedding band glinting, pressing gently on the area near the scar, and he looked into my face to see if it hurt.
We’re never quite certain whether Lucy’s mother, so abusive in Lucy’s childhood that she wanted strangers to rescue her, really comes to sit night after night at her daughter’s bedside, or whether this is wish fulfilment. Other daughters in Strout’s books talk to their absent mothers. Strout returns to the idea of the cruel mother’s kindness time and again – Olive’s a cruel, kind mother too – because she’s drawn to the idea that the wound and the comfort might come from the same source. At best this nervy hypersensitivity generates something raw and electric: that policeman with his fish eyes and his arousal, the line of ants hurrying past Jack Kennison’s shoe. But she can resort too quickly to piling on the pain, delivering the shock and then offering the consolation – addressing her work to the longing and unappeasable child in all of us. Whether the reader resists or responds is a matter of taste and temperament, as well as tradition.