Book Review of Elizabeth Strout's Olive, Again

I read Elizabeth Strout’Olive Again without having read the first Olive Kitteridge, but I don’t think it adversely affected my enjoyment of it at all. Olive, Again is quite simply one of the best books I have ever read. It would be a wonderful text to choose for an animated book discussion group. I defy anyone to not fall in love with the cantankerous, old, troubled, self-contradictory curmudgeon who is Olive.

In this novel we meet Olive about to embark on her second marriage to Jack after the bereavement of Henry (who I believe features as the local pharmacist in her first book). We leave her, somewhat reluctantly, living in a care home in Crosby, Maine, stating that “Truthfully she (I) does not understand a thing.”

As a reflection on life we are encouraged to laugh, cry, and share the insight, or at times lack of insight Olive continually displays. Elizabeth Strout is pure genius in getting to the very heart of the human condition. There are no issues she shrinks from and explores topics as diverse as paedophilia to being a dominatrix to infidelity to incontinence. The extreme and the mundane sit side by side to create a normal and weirdly realistic view of small town life.

Although presented as a novel, the book is arguably a series of vignettes in which Olive features either centrally or on the periphary as a neighbour, friend or teacher. Within the book there is something and someone that everyone can relate to in their own neighbourhood. As a reader I haven’t come across a book more likely to engender an empathetic response. It is the perfect book club choice.

Elizabeth Strout's Olve, Again - a great bookclub choice.

Book Discussion Questions for Olive, Again

What five adjectives would you use to describe Olive? What is Olive’s best and worst quality? 
Both of Olive’s husband’s die before her. Explore how she felt towards both husbands. Do you think she preferred one ot the other? 

  • In the opening chapter we see Jack Kennison (Olive’s second husband) taking a drive in his sports car and reflecting on how to live an honest life. Do you think his life with Olive is honest? Why or why not? 
  • In the vignette of Helen and Jim and Bob and Margaret the theme of being an ‘exile’ at home dominates. What is your view of the choices they make in life?
  • Mr Ringrose catches Kayley finding pleasure in her own body and after that pays to watch her again. This is clearly unacceptable, yet Elizabeth Strout leaves us to form our own opinion about Mr Ringrose. What do you think of him?
  • Why does Kayley miss cleaning in the Ringrose household?
  • The Macphersons barely speak to each other for thirty-five of the forty-two years they have been married. The reason cited is that Mr Macpherson had had an affair with a neighbour early in the marriage. They go as far as to divide their house in two with yellow tape. Despite this when Mr Macpherson becomes very ill Mrs Macpherson is tender towards him. How would you sum up their marraige? 
  • Which charater in the vignettes by Elizabeth Strout do you have the most sympathy for and why?
  • Olive and Isabelle both believe that their children live far away from them because they were bad mothers. Do you think this is true? Do you think they were bad mothers? 
  • Judging by the poem that Andrea L’Rieuxs wrote about her exchange with Olive it would seem that Olive completely misread and misinterpreted Andrea’s emotional state and life situation. Or did she? What do you think? Who do you think left the poem for Olive to read and why?

Book Club Questions for Elizabeth Strout's Olive Again - when you haven't read the book!

  • In the final pages of the text Olive apologizes to the husband of Barbara, an acquaintance to whome she hadn’t been very nice to many years before. Who do you need to apologise to for something you have done in your past? 
  • Olive says “It was herself she realised that didn’t please her” “But it was too late to be thinking that …” Do you think it is ever to late to try and change yourself? 
  • Fergus Macpherson finds it extremely distressing to learn that his daughter Lisa is a dominatrix. How accepting would you be of your children working in the ‘sex industry”?
  • Elizabeth Strout books are frequently compimented on exploring with great insight the ‘human condition’. What does this phrase actually mean? 
  • In Olive Again Elizabeth Strout frequently explores the theme of loneliness? She gets to the very essence of how ‘failed’ relationships’ can make people feel incredibly alone. What other writer, who you enjoy reading, does this effectively? 
  • In Olive,Again, Elizabether Strolut refers to Trump obliquely rather than by name. When I read Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered I noticed she also does this.. Why don’t you think they refer the president of the USA by name? 
  • When you are unable to live independently would you like to live in a care home like the one that Olive describes?
I was intrigued what Elizabeth Strout looked like. She isn't so different to how I imagine Olive Kitteridge!

Summing up Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

As I put together these book club and book discussion questions it was interesting to note that it was just as easy to create questions for those who haven’t read the book as it was for those who have. I have found that with other book club questions I’ve written too. I think that is testament to how well Elizabeth Strout explores the human condition. With relatively few words she masterfully creates unique yet universal snapshots of life that each and everyone of us can really relate to. 

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