Early in Middlemarch, George Eliot’s young heroine finds herself alone on her honeymoon, bewildered by her disappointment in her new marriage. After describing Dorothea’s desolation, the narrator addresses the reader directly:
Some discouragement, some faintness of heart at the new real future which replaces the imaginary, is not unusual, and we do not expect people to be deeply moved by what is not unusual. That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not yet wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind; and perhaps our frames could hardly bear much of it. If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.
Eliot’s conviction that fiction should be an instrument to expand our sympathy has been so widely touted that it is now commonplace. Yet few contemporary novelists embrace this mandate as absolutely, or as elegantly, as Elizabeth Strout. In her acclaimed novels, Strout examines the adversity of ordinary human life. With sensitivity and spare prose, she loosens our wadding to let us hear the roar. Like Eliot, she sees reading and writing literature as moral acts.
After her stints in New York City (the stunning My Name is Lucy Barton) and rural Illinois (the still more impressive Anything is Possible), Strout returns to Maine, her home state and the setting of her first four novels. Olive, Again picks up shortly after the Pulitzer Prize-winning, best-selling Olive Kitteridge ends. Like that novel, it explores provincial domestic life: the traumas of childhood, the trials of parenthood, and the frustrations of marriage.
Mimicking the structure of the earlier novel, Olive, Again is told in thirteen named chapters, in which the capricious but compassionate Olive, whether she is a major or minor character, is an indelible presence. Strout’s style is characteristically synoptic: each of these chapters could stand alone as a short story but they are made richer by connections, both subtle and overt, to other chapters and to Strout’s earlier fiction. (We revisit not only Olive and her neighbors but also brothers Jim and Bob of The Burgess Boys and the titular mother-daughter pair of Amy and Isabelle. Occasionally, this crowd-pleasing tactic falters—at times, these scenes feel like a high school reunion, consoling but ultimately unsatisfying.)
Despite all the familiarity, the tone of this novel is different, softer yet no less sad. This is partly because Olive is older now—chapters leap forward in time—and her rage has given way to remorse.
The truth is that Olive did not understand why age had brought with it a kind of hard-heartedness toward her husband. But it was something she had seemed unable to help, as though the stone wall that had rambled along between them during the course of their long marriage—a stone wall that separated them but also provided unexpected dips of moss-covered warm spots where sunshine would flicker between them in a sudden laugh of understanding—had become tall and unyielding, and not providing flowers in its crannies but some ice storm frozen along it instead. . . . She still did not understand why they should walk into old age with this high and horrible wall between them. And it was her fault. Because as her heart became more constricted, Henry’s heart became needier, and when he walked up behind her in the house sometimes to slip his arms around her, it was all she could do to not visibly shudder. Stop!, she wanted to shout. (But why? What crime had he been committing, except to ask for her love?)
Olive’s anguish is as much from regret as it is from her inability to understand herself, a feeling that plagues many characters in this novel. Nostalgia ridden by guilt predominates, and it makes Olive, Again both mellower and more melancholy than its predecessor.
Strout sustains this tone of sorrow by laying bare the indignities and infirmities of the second childhood of old age. She shows Olive and her contemporaries slowly lose control of their minds and bodies through prostate surgery, heart attacks, strokes, dementia, Alzheimer’s. Olive’s fresh dismay at each humiliation—the cane, the nurses, the diapers, the inevitable move to assisted living—heightens the pathos. By far the cruelest torture of aging is the horrifying isolation brought on by the spouses who die and the children who don’t visit.
Loneliness. Oh, the loneliness!
She had not known such a feeling her entire life; this is what she thought as she moved about the house. It may have been the terror finally wearing off and giving way for this gaping bright universe of loneliness that she faced, but it bewildered her to feel this. She realized it was as though she had—all her life—four big wheels beneath her, without even knowing it, of course, and now they were, all four of them, wobbling and about to come off. She did not know who she was, or what would happen to her.
This is simple prose, but it packs a punch.
But in Olive, Again, it isn’t just the old who are achingly lonely; it is even, especially, the long married. Strout excels at portraying the regular turbulence of marriage—the ways love can swiftly transfigure into hate, hostility into tenderness. She handles these fluctuations so delicately that she is able to show how contradictory emotions enhance rather than nullify each other. In one chapter, her portrait of the elaborate choreography of a couple who haven’t spoken in thirty-five years (“back then there was no forgiveness and no divorce”) unveils the myriad ways devotion and estrangement can sit side-by-side in marriage. The most heart-wrenching sentences detail the moments when widows and widowers, raw with regret about years squandered, pine for another moment with their late spouse.
Above all, Strout is a master of interiority, plunging us into rich inner lives pummeled by sudden swoops and gusts of fear and rage, joy and sorrow. Her rendering of quotidian distress is so fine it hurts to read. She also captures the physiological reverberations of intense emotion—the warmth of happiness, the bodily ache of sadness, the nausea of disgust, the jaw tingling of an encounter with an old lover. All this has two effects, one disquieting, the other soothing. Both are clarifying. Reading Strout heightens your awareness of your own bouts of despair but also makes you feel less alone, united as you are with the distressed souls that surround you.
The novel is at its weakest when Strout feels the need to spell this out. Her discernible anxiety about the current political climate and the “horrible orange-haired man who was President” seems to shake her confidence in the force of her work. In one overwrought section, she practically shouts that everyone is worthy of our sympathy—the Muslim-American daughter of Somali refugees and the Trump-supporting white woman who is rude to her. The introduction of these two women, both at-home nurses for Olive, feels contrived. Indeed, it may even cause readers to lose their footing. The abrupt signaling that this novel has a message tends to weaken it.
The best parts of this novel admit you into Strout’s vision of being alive, in which the elation of human connection makes the despair worth enduring. With trademark clarity, Strout reveals that every passing stranger is equally capable of acute suffering. In this way, she convinces that all individuals, even the deplorable, deserve understanding. Her rounded portraits are correctives to the caricatures that flood the media. Olive, Again affirms the capacity of literature to revive flagging sympathy.
Tara K. Menon is a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows. @tarakmenon — tarakmenon.com