Although I have vowed to stop buying books, I couldn’t pass up Elizabeth Strout’s the new novel about Olive Kitteridge. I read it in a flash and then decided to read the two books–Olive Kitteridge and Olive Again–one after another. They fit together perfectly–a long reflection about love, friendship, and aging.
It is hard to avoid the theme of loss in this compendium. Olive is in her sixties at the start of the first book. One of her daily rituals is a long early morning walk. By the end of the second book, she is well into her eighties and walks very slowly with a cane. She loses her interest in sewing, perhaps because her body has changed. “’Shrink? Of course you do,’” she tells a former student. “’Your spine gets crunched up, your belly pops out—and down you go.’”(198) She loses two husbands, one in the first book and one in the second. After suffering a heart attack and a debilitating fall, she has moved into independent living apartments at a senior home. Her biggest fear is that she will lose all independence and be sent “over the bridge” to the assisted living facility.
But as Olive’s world shrinks outwardly, it seems to expand inwardly. She becomes kinder, her blunt honesty now directed to herself. She reaches out to people in need and apologizes for her hasty judgement. Her prickly relationship with her son resolves itself as she admits her shortcomings and he recognizes that she really needs him. She discovers an ability to make a new friend, giving her new life in a dark senior apartment a spark that it didn’t have when she was alone in her second husband’s house. Reflection becomes a source of joy as well as pain. “But it was almost over, after all, her life. It swelled behind her like a sardine fishing net, all sorts of useless seaweed and broken bits of shells and the tiny, shining fish…”(288)
I thought of Olive yesterday while visiting my 95 year old mother. She is still in her beloved house with twelve hours of care a day, although it’s unclear how long that can last. Her memory is fading and it is difficult for her to read, since she forgets the story line. What does she think of all day, I was wondering, when she turned to me to say—“Look at that beautiful line of pelicans.” I looked up, and there it was.