I often remember characters from novels, and I can come to think of them as real people. Sometimes an author uses the same cast of characters throughout a series of novels. Many times these characters remain pretty static and they don’t seem further developed from book to book. The detective remains pretty much the same throughout the books, for instance.
Elizabeth Strout presents the reader with a contrasting approach. After writing Olive Kittredge in 2008, she let her character rest in subsequent books. But in 2019 she published Olive, Again as if she, as a writer, had been unable to forget about Olive, wondered what had happened to her in the intervening years, and decided to tell us.
Strout’s books focus on character, rather than plot. As I have become older, I am more interested in character development and less in plot, so they are a good match for me. Olive, in the first book, presented as a cantankerous Maine woman, difficult to like, who grew on the reader as we encountered her in a series of short stories. We saw various aspects of her, and understood that she was as complicated as most people.
Olive, revisited, shows us the woman, still cranky, still opinionated, and still uncomfortable with herself most of the time. But throughout this book Olive has moments of self reflection. She begins to think about herself in a new way, as a wife, as a parent, as a teacher and as a neighbor. As she becomes self aware, we find a new level of compassion for this old woman. I suspect that is what Strout herself felt about Olive as the years passed between books. Olive was worth another look.
I appreciated the evidence that even in late life a person can soften some, can connect more deeply with others, and can feel, with self-compassion, some regret. May it be so with all of us.