I’ve been reading Elisabeth Strout’s Olive, Again and in doing so have been reminded of how endearing the often grumpy, straight-talking, occasionally insensitive, Olive can be.
The follow up to the popular Olive Kitteridge has also made me realise that, as I have transitioned into a life of flat shoes and elasticated waistbands during the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m a little weary of the protagonists of above-average attributes, who thrive against all odds, that appear in so many books.
Give me someone who tends to miss Zoom cues and whose frizzy hair has not been tamed by a hairdresser for months, and that’s someone whose story that I want to read right now.
Step up, Olive Kitteridge. Olive has a big tummy and bottom, she wears unfashionable clothes that she has made herself and she is easily irritated when others are rude or thoughtless.
I laughed out loud at the Strout’s description of Olive at a baby shower where all the guests sat in a circle as the expectant mother opened each gift and passed it around the women, who cooed and ahhed at length. Olive could not comprehend the stupidity of the situation. I recognised the moment from an identical one in my own life, and I admit that my reaction was similar to Olive’s.
And that might be the very reason why Olive is so attractive, despite her missteps with her son, her dowdiness and her cynicism. The reader can hardly strive to look or behave like Elisabeth Bennett or Jane Eyre, but there is no striving involved in identifying with Olive.
On inviting her son and his family to visit, Elisabeth Strout describes an encounter with her daughter-in-law’s children: “Neither of Ann’s children spoke a word to Olive. Not a word. Not a “thank you” or a “please” – not one word did they say. They watched her carefully, then turned away. She thought they were horrible children.”
Olive is always biting her tongue or getting annoyed by other people’s behaviour – her impatience and occasional snippiness is a pleasure to read in its comforting familiarity for anyone who has made lunch for family who arrived at dinnertime or wondered at the inexplicable behaviour of others.
There is a realness to Olive that isn’t always present in books about the extraordinary experiences of extraordinary people.
I felt the same way about the characters in Kent Haruf’s Plainsong. It was clear that each had been battered by life. None was bound attract adoration or even much attention, but they were just doing their best to create a good life for themselves. There were the lonely elderly brothers, the pregnant teenager, the harried teacher and the mother unable to return to her family. Each had a story to tell that was raw and real.
It was the awkwardness and no-nonsense attitude of Eleanor Oliphant which saw that unlikely hero become so beloved by readers, without any claims to beauty or greatness.
Similarly, Elena Ferrante creates unlikeable heroes who are as fascinating as they are mean. In The Lying Lives of Adults, Giovanna stealthily listens to the conversations of others, dreams of stealing her friend’s fiancé and betrays her parents. Yet, somehow, it is hard not to understand her young teenage confusion and angst, and to ultimately feel a sense of understanding and empathy, if not exactly affection.
All this is not to say that I don’t love a bit of escapism – I can dream of having the beauty and bravery of the sisters in The Nightingale by Kirsten Hannah, or of the glamorous life of Vivian from City of Girls.
I loved reading Pride and Prejudice earlier in the year, and was thrilled that Elizabeth’s admirable qualities were eventually recognised by Darcy.
It was also glorious to read of the beauty of Achilles in Madeline Miller’s moving The Song of Achilles, with his otherworldly beauty and skill at battle, but I think I prefer my heroes to be made of less celestial stuff.
In Such a Fun Age, Emira and Alex were both beautiful, popular and smart, however misguided their decision making.
Even the all-encompassing emotion of Katherine and Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights can seem intoxicating for the reader living their ordinary, suburban life (and willing to look past Heathcliff’s terrifying cruelty).
But in the wake of a pandemic, it is Olive who I want to read about; I’m attracted to her relatable charm and her quirks and idiosyncrasies. Afterall, aren’t the people we know and love more likely to look and behave like Olive than Elisabeth Bennett? And aren’t our worlds just as unremarkable – and at the same time, fascinating – as that of Olive?
I enjoy knowing that despite her weaknesses, Olive is loveable and loved. Maybe that is what we all need as we hobble closer to the end of 2020.