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May — Olive, Again

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The Ladies Book Club met Thursday, May 7th — not at Churchill Street Recreation Center, but online from our homes. I believe 24 members participated, clicking on the ZOOM session link that Peg Tabor sent the day before, then joining the meeting, with Kathy Morey managing it until most everyone was able to be seen and heard. We signed in to discuss Olive Again by Elizabeth Strout. Peg reminded us that we'll be reading Where the Crawdads Sing by Delta Owens for next month. She has also been contacted by the Recreation Department, inquiring about when the club will be meeting at the Churchill Street recreation center again. She was afraid that we might not be able to get the room again. After consulting with members via email, she told Recreation that we would be back in September; we're just not comfortable going back just yet, and some of us had spouses at home with compromised immune systems and didn't want to risk it. As for our Books for Children fund, it will just have to wait until later, and hopefully we'll make up for lost months when we are back together again.

With that, Peg turned the meeting over to Mary Anne Hume, our discussion leader for May. We were surprised to see that she had a black eye, but no, it wasn't her husband (lol), it was a fall. She started with some information about the author. Strout was born in Portland, Maine and graduated from Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. She longed to get out of Maine and spent a year in Oxford, England, working in a pub. Afraid she’d end up a "58-year-old cocktail waitress" instead of a fiction writer, she returned to the U.S. and went to law school. In 1982, she graduated with honors and received a law degree from the Syracuse University College of Law, then worked briefly for Legal Services. She met her first husband and moved to New York City with him, where she taught at a community college and focused on her writing. She worked to complete her book Amy and Isabelle for six or seven years. Once published, it was shortlisted for the 2000 Orange Prize and nominated for the 2000 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction, and was adapted as a television movie, starring Elisabeth Shue. Her third book, Olive Kitteridge (the precursor of Olive, Again), won the Pultizer Prize in 2009 and was adapted into an HBO TV mini-series starring Frances McDormand. Strout describes herself as a chatterbox. "That was one of the reasons I had to get out of New England, frankly. I was a little bit of a family embarrassment because I was always talking." Strout is now married to prominent Maine attorney James Tierney, who is also a lecturer at Harvard Law School and founding director of State AG, an educational resource on the office of state attorney general. She divides her time between New York City and Brunswick, Maine.

Mary Anne liked the book, but asked whether anyone disliked it? Kathy Morey thought that it might have been that she read it under these circumstances (coronavirus shelter-in-place), she found it depressing. No one in the book was happy. Linda Roth found it to be disjointed and Olive came across as not a very nice character when she interacted with others. Marcia Shore agreed that it was a downer. She just wasn't ready for it and wanted something more uplifting. Olive was an interesting character, but she was so negative, it got to her after awhile. Mary Jo Johnson didn't like it either. She doesn't like vignettes, so the style of the book wasn't to her liking; she likes one continuous story. On the other hand, Sue Laluk liked it and likes short stories, and she liked how they were all tied together. Some of the stories told us a lot about Olive and in others she was just a tiny part of it. She also liked the writing style, where you found out about things in an interesting way.

Anne Russell wanted to like Olive — underneath she seemed to have a good heart, but even when she went to visit the woman who was dying and she tried to be kind and empathetic, she came across as very brusque and a know-it-all, but she did like the book. Mary Anne said that she liked the book, very much. She liked the style of writing, loved the references to nature (trees, water, etc.), but admitted that Olive was a bit hard to take. She's got a heart of gold. For instance, when she was at the baby shower, she was the only one who noticed that the woman was in labor. She got the woman into her car and actually delivered the baby. Mary Dooley said she didn't get a chance to read the book, but she read the reviews and that was why she was with us. Olive had so many negative character traits, but she also felt Olive had a heart of gold and she was curious how it all came together and how we all felt about it. That was one of the reasons Charlotte Davis said she liked the book. She doesn't necessarily have to like the characters that she reads about and she probably wouldn't be Olive's friend, but on the other hand, she really enjoyed watching how her character developed and how she interacted with all the different people. She said that she knows people like Olive who are brusque and who do have a heart of gold. Peg said that she was not very fond of Olive Kitteridge or the book the first she read it, but she read it again to prepare for Olive, Again and she actually saw a lot more in it than the first time she read it. Yes, Olive was brusque, but she still cared very much about people and she liked that Olive wasn't the star of all the stories. In some cases, she was a very minor character, but her appearance in all the stories tied them all together. And there was a progression, a connection through both books that we might not have recognized at first... the progression of her relationships, her marriage to Henry, then to Jack, her son Chris, his first divorce, then second marriage....

Mary Anne then asked what we thought of Olive's relationship with Jack, was it a good marriage? Anne thought it was — it satisfied two people's needs, he brought out a better side of her, he made her more comfortable in her own skin. Mary Anne and others agreed with Anne. Mary Anne also loved that he had a sense of humor. He laughed heartily and supported Olive when Chris came to visit with his family and when they left the scarf Olive had knitted for her grandson behind. Betty Scanlon also thought it was a good marriage. It started out a bit strange, but she thought they grew with each other and he helped mellow her as she got older. Peg was reminded of Our Souls at Night by Ken Haruf as she was reading it. Us, too! Mary Anne also brought up that he broadened her horizons. They went to Norway and Florida together, even though she didn't like Florida. Jack said Olive was a snob because she wouldn't fly first class. Did we think she was a snob; did we think he was? Sue clarified that he called Olive a reverse snob; he was a snob because he was rich and she was a snob because she was against rich people. Sue also added that not only did he make her a better person, but she made him a better person, as well. That got quite a few nods of agreement. It was not a marriage that would have happened if they were 30 years younger. Joan Puleo agreed with so many of the comments made. One of the things she loved about the whole story was that it showed how we change over time, how incidences and things were are involved with have a role in changing us and our perspectives. She loved this book because it gave the opportunity to change and learn about others. It was reassuring in that there is still room to grow, no matter what age we are or our stage in life.

Strout said that she wrote the first story of the book (about the U.S. Poet Laureate, Andrea L'Rieux). Olive thought the woman looked lonely when she entered the coffee shop, so Olive joined her. But later, the poet wrote a poem about that encounter and thought Olive was lonely. Who do we think is lonely? We chuckled as we pondered that question. Betty thought they were both lonely, but she thought Olive was lonelier. Andrea was lonely because she thinks you have to know something about loneliness to write about it. Kathy and Anne agreed. Anne didn't know what Olive was like with Henry, but she wasn't close to her son or any of her students, and she thought Olive isolated herself. Who put the copy of the magazine with the poem marked in Olive's mailbox? Most of us were pretty sure it was the poet. But why did Olive want to get rid of it so badly? Charlotte didn't think Olive liked the description of herself and it wasn't they way Olive saw herself.

Jack and Olive had a terrible argument about class distinction. She called Olive and her friends provincial and her response to him was that any parent who can't accept a lesbian child is provincial. Which is right? Kathy said that people can be provincial about different things. It was horrible of him to reject his daughter, but Olive really did have some very rigid ideas about people herself, about what was proper and what wasn't, and she disapproved of a lot of people for what they were doing. Mary Anne agreed and pointed out that with Olive's own grandchildren... they didn't have proper manners, very critical, unlike what grandmothers are supposed to be... accepting of everything. Eileen Roberta thought Olive was the sort of person who, if you didn't do it her way, you were doing it the wrong way, and she thinks that's why she and her son were estranged most of the time. He was so different from her and had to acclimate himself to two different wives and all the chaos... she couldn't adapt to that. She still loved him but had a hard time putting herself into other people's shoes.

Olive told Isabelle that she wasn't a good mother. Was Olive a good mother? Sue recalled that when Olive was in the hospital, the doctor told her that she must have been a good mother because her son was there a lot and called frequently, got her a typewriter even though they were obsolete and hard to find, and when she asked for a rose bush, he brought two and planted them for her. Sue thought he came around because he had a rough childhood because she was so demanding. Being an only child probably put a lot of pressure on him. But he came to the same conclusion that we did, that she had a good heart and meant well. Charlotte also wondered how he thought about his father, who helped raise him? Mary Anne said Henry was a very good man. It wasn't until the end of his life that he became needy. She also thought that when Chris became a parent himself, he realized that his parents weren't perfect but they were doing the best they could. Charlotte added that regardless of how children are treated, they still love their parents. Kathy thought he started coming around as Olive got frailer. A lot of times children may not be on good terms with their parents, but then realize that they might lose them and this might be their last chance. That might have had something to do with it. Barb Kalmin also thought that he was away from his wife, and people are different with different people; he reverted to being a better son because his wife wasn't around, criticizing him. When they were visiting, Olive isn't paying enough attention to her children... that sort of thing. That was a possibility and Mary Anne recalled that when Chris found out that his mother was going to get married again and sell the house, he became very upset and his wife called him out in front of Olive and Jack, the kids... he was being a baby, and they leave, with Jack commenting that, "now we know who wears the pants in that family." Charlotte wondered whether he was upset about his mother getting married or losing his childhood home? Probably both.

Anybody have a favorite story in the book? Charlotte liked when she flew back from Norway in first class, realizing how silly and pointless it was to not sit with Jack. That put a smile on everyone's face. Anne liked the one where she couldn't cut her toenails (which she could relate to), and Jack paid for a pedicure and she thought that was the most wonderful thing. We liked that tone, too. Peg liked the one where Olive had a heart attack and the cardiologist told her that she was dead. Olive thought it was such a beautiful place. And that was also the chapter where she asked a couple of people, "Tell me what it's like to be you?" That really resonated with her. Sue really liked Light, where Olive went to help Cindy and at the very end, she said how she really liked the light in February. That resonated because they both felt the same way. They were also very different people, but the empathy that Olive showed to Cindy was one of the times she came across better than in some of the other stories. Mary Anne agreed; she liked Olive and knows people like her. Several people said that. Kathy liked the way Olive stuck up for Helima, the nurse’s aide, daughter of Somali refugees from the town where Olive once lived. What did we think about the young girl who kept showing her breasts to the old man? What did we think about him? Kathy and others thought it was really creepy, but also very sad because he was losing it and was going into a home, and she felt the girl was headed for big trouble.

Peg read an excerpt from the first book referring to getting older, how the needs of the young and old are similar, and how lives are squandered, which applies to us all. It was beautiful. Thanks for sharing, Peg. Kathy said that there was no doubt that Strout is an excellent writer, but she just couldn't get into the book. If she'd read it back in January, she might have enjoyed it more and it wouldn't have bothered her as much. But being stuck in the house, alone, it was too much sadness for her. Was the coast of Maine a character in the book? We all agreed that it was, and Sue added that all the stories were evocative of the place, and she thought it would have been another story and Olive would have been another person in another locality. Dalia Gagne didn't like the the stuff like the girl showing her breasts, diapers, etc., but she really loved Olive; she's a real person, is deep down kind hearted, and enjoyed when Olive flew first class and found that she liked it. She sees a lot of herself in Olive.

Mary Anne asked what we thought of the story about the brother who lived in New York, who brought his wife to visit with his brother in Maine, where his wife got drunk and fell down the stairs? Peg remembered it, but it wasn't her favorite story, although it was true and realistic... it happens. Mary Anne thought the point of the story was that the older brother was the one that giggled with the clutch that caused the car to roll over their father while the younger brother had always thought he had caused the accident. The two brothers were also worlds apart; the younger brother went to New York to visit and didn't like it, and the older brother returned to Maine and didn't like it. The McPherson's barely talked to one another, to the point that they cordoned off their respective areas throughout the house. The reason being that Mr. McPherson had an affair. They lived this way for 42 years, yet when Mr. McPherson became ill, his wife was tender toward him. How would we sum up their marriage? That story was interesting to Kathy because when her father-in-law died a few years ago, they found out he was a serial cheater during most of his marriage. Kathy's husband was the only one who didn't know about it, but it explained a lot about how his wife had reacted, grieving and yet not. She thought they still loved each other, but they didn't like each other. It was poignant watching her mother-in-law deal with her husband's death. This story reminded her of them.

When Olive moved to assisted living, the wife of one of the residents died and Olive went to the funeral and went up to the husband and apologized because she hadn't been very nice to his wife. He told her not to worry about it, that his wife had never spoken of it. Olive admitted that she was afraid to die, but why did Olive feel the need to apologize? Eileen thought Olive was a little jealous of Barbara because she took life in stride, went out for walks, and was a happy-go-lucky person, and Olive obviously wasn't. Later, Olive made a friend, Isabelle. Olive invited her to join her table. No one had done that for her when she first moved in. Mary Anne could understand that because she had a friend who went to live in an up-scale residence, and her friend said how cliquish everyone was and it was difficult to make friends. Kathy thought that is common anywhere where people are living in close quarters, especially when they don't have a lot to do. One of her friends lives in one of the villa areas; she complains about that — she equated it to being back in high school. Charlotte sees that, as well. She's new to The Villages and she sees that when she goes to neighborhood functions. She doesn't take it personally; she thinks it's just an opportunity for them to connect with friends that they've known for many years. Mary Jo said that you never get out of kindergarten. You always have the mean girls, and if you are a shrinking violet (which she is not), she can see how hard it might be. Barb added that when she went to a class reunion, some of the mean girls and guys turned out to be nice. Mary Jo agreed; once you get out of high school, you're not the same, you're a different person. Hopefully, you move on. Sue recalled her 10th reunion and everyone was strutting their stuff, trying to impress each other. By the time of their 30th reunion, some people were divorced, they'd experienced more of life and a lot of the barriers came down. Not everyone is perfect, but that's okay. It was a totally different experience. Mary Jo added that the jobs aren't as important, being a cheerleader isn't that important; it all seems to even out. Charlotte said that her grandma told her to always date the nerds because they'll be successful. We all got a chuckle from that.

When you can no longer live independently, would you like to live in an assisted-living place like Olive? Some thought it would like being in prison, with food being brought to your room. Dalia lamented how the care homes up in Toronto where she is have been devastated with the coronavirus. In one care home, over 100 people have died. Everyone is aware of the many deaths in nursing and assisted-living places. Mary Jo was surprised that so few have died here. It was also pointed out that we still don't have a lot of testing, and if you don't test, you never know how bad the problem is. Mary Jo said that they had testing for asymptomatic people, but few had heard about it. She saw it in the paper and she made an appointment her and her husband, who is high risk. She doesn't go shopping often, but when she does, she is amazed at the number of people who aren't wearing masks, not practicing social distancing, and not paying attention to the 1-way aisles. Several of us pleaded guilty to the last one; we're looking at the signs, shelves and shopping lists, not the floor... until someone points it out.

Getting back to the book, Betty said she would prefer to stay in her own home if possible, and have people come to her to help out. However, most of us recognized that it depends on the level of care we might need. When Charlotte and her husband were planning for their long-term living plans, they chose assisted living because they saw the problems her mother-in-law had with people coming in. People didn't show up when they should have and they weren't reliable. She didn't have a problem with people stealing, but because she didn't need around-the-clock care, every once in a while they just wouldn't send someone.

With the current pandemic, where people can't leave their living area, she sees that that would be horrible, not having contact with any other people. Peg thought it was also a function of our personalities. She would prefer to be in her own home, but if she saw things that needed to be done and she had to wait until someone came, that would drive her crazy. On the other hand, she had an aunt who was happy-go-lucky and she didn't care if the bed wasn't made perfectly. It depends on what you can tolerate. Mary Jo's husband had a fishing friend who was 90 and living at Elan. He loved it there, talking with people in the lobby, eating in the dining room, etc. But when he had to stay in his room, he wasn't good technologically so didn't do facebook or zoom, he got so depressed that he died three weeks later — he just gave up. That brings us back to quality of life. What is living if you're shut up in a room or your house? Anne said that being in her own home is better. She is at least able to get out, walk, pick up the mail, but still keeping their distance. On her street, they also come out of their homes at a specified time and say a prayer. As the pandemic continues, they bring some wine out with them, as well, all the while practicing social distancing. Peg walks the dog and that gets her out. Me, too!

That was about it for discussion of the book, but Mary Anne reiterated that really loved the book. Peg added that it was a good discussion book... if we all loved it, there wouldn't be anything to talk about... and Stroud was a very good writer, whether we liked the book or not. Good job, Mary Anne! Before leaving, Peg expressed condolences to Sue for losing her mother-in-law, but also congratulations for welcoming her first grandchild. Sue said, "like it says... there is a time to be born and a time to die...." She thinks her mother-in-law held on until she could see pictures of the baby.

For next month, we'll be reading Where the Crawdads Sing by Delta Owens. Linda Roth will be leading our discussion. To get a head start on your other reading, see Books We'll Be Reading in 2020 and the month we'll be discussing them.
 


Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

Olive Kitteridge is prickly, wry, and resistant to change, but also ruthlessly honest and deeply empathetic. We meet her again as she struggles to understand herself and her own life, as well as those of her neighbors in Crosby, Maine.
 


See you next month (even if it's just through Zoom), and keep on reading....


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