One of the books clubs to which I belong recently read Olive Kitteridge and Olive Again by Elizabeth Strout. It was a two-in-one-month reading assignment that I, at first, found irritating, but then realized how lucky I was to have read them both.
If you aren’t familiar with the books, you might have watched the HBO miniseries based on them starring Frances McDormand. as Olive, Richard Jenkins as her husband Henry, and Bill Murray as Jack Kennison.
The first of the two novels, set in the fictional seaside town of Crosby, Maine, comprises a series of vignettes in which the eponymous Olive is a continuing character linking the stories of Crosby’s inhabitants which, I have to say, more often than not function as a parade of psychological autopsies revealing tragedy, heartbreak, and disappointment.
Strout does a masterful job of peeling back the layers of their life stories, and it is a pleasure witnessing her skill at work. But a Pulitzer Prize notwithstanding, there are only so many disembowelings one can stand, no matter the surgeon’s skill. I longed for more of a traditional story.
More arrives in Olive Again, a masterwork, a brilliant story in which, finally, Olive takes center stage, where she belongs, and we are treated to a narrative continuity that is un-put-downable.
In my view, the first book serves as backstory for the second, and the second is the true prize-winner.
In any event, we all fell in love with Olive, misanthropic, cantankerous, hard-shelled though she may be. And we wondered, were there to be yet another book (yes, please, Elizabeth!) how it might begin.
We leave Olive, old, decrepit, clearly with just a little time left. How will she use it? The book club members offered their thoughts on how the final book of a trilogy might begin. Here is my humble beginning:
The early morning sun shone through the Venetian blinds covering the window in Olive Kitteridge’s room in Crosby, Maine, casting alternating bars of light and shadow on her as she lay in her bed. Had anyone been with her to notice, they might have observed that Olive appeared to be resting beneath prison bars, such was the illusion created by the play of the light. And Olive would have found that interesting as she had, just the previous evening, been telling her son Christopher how she felt imprisoned in the wrinkled shell that had become her ancient body. And that there was no escape.
But Olive was wrong about that, as she had been wrong about so many things.
“Do you think I was a bad mother?” She had asked her son.
“You did your very best, Mommy,” he’d replied. Which wasn’t the same thing as saying no, a fact that did not elude her.
Her last thought before she closed her eyes that night was this: We can’t change our history.
And she was right about that.
A robin alighted on the windowsill and its shadow joined that of the bars playing across Olive’s resting form. Now she looked like a sleeping woman in a birdcage.
The robin fluttered off and Olive did not stir. By the time the nurse entered Olive’s room to check on her, the sun had shifted and the shadowy bars no longer imprisoned Olive. She had made her escape.
Olive did not feel the nurse’s strong but gentle hand as she raised her wrist to feel for a pulse. Nor did Olive hear the commotion that followed as doctors, interns, and other nurses flooded into her room.
Nor did she hear Christopher when, later that morning, he asked her attending physician, “Is she…?”
Likewise, she didn’t see the doctor rest his hand on her son’s shoulder and shake his head.
She never heard him tell Christopher, “You can never tell with comas.”
No, Olive was much too busy to pay any attention at all to the outside world. She was facing a terrible dilemma. Jack was holding her right hand; Henry her left. Each wanted to go in a different direction and she had to choose.
“Hell’s bells,” she said in a voice only she could hear.