Elizabeth Strout’s Compassionate Realism


Review of Olive, Again, by Elizabeth Strout

New York: Random House, 2019  


Who is Elizabeth Strout, according to the reigning—if mistaken—view? A perfectly competent practitioner of the polished and forgettable MFA-style realism favored by the New Yorker’s fiction pages and by educated, but not “literary,” readers in airports. As doomed to fade as the “disappearing” people she writes about—white New Englanders, often women in middle age, who ache with quiet disappointments. Parochial in her subject matter, conservative in her artistic approach. Middlebrow. Conventional. Apolitical. A woman’s writer.  

Like many female writers, Strout has been poorly served by the conventions of chick-lit marketing. The covers of her novels feature beautiful girls with billowing blonde hair, curlicue fonts, quaint country cottages, and occasional endorsements from Oprah. Strout herself is a middle-aged white woman, as are some of her characters. But to think that her books are thus meant primarily or exclusively for middle-aged women readers is a revealing, if routine, failure of imagination—one that follows from the broader devaluing of female talent in our culture, and from the creeping expectation in contemporary fiction that reader, author, and character must all hail from the same demographic group in order for sympathetic identification to occur.  

Beneath those sentimental covers is fiction of emotional complexity and ethical force.  

Strout writes in a mode of realism—transparent and immersive, focused on ordinary people and the concrete details of everyday life, aimed at enlisting the reader’s love and pity—that can seem old-fashioned or quaint. Despite a few recent successes (think of Elena Ferrante’s hypnotic, life-like Neapolitan novels) and realism’s residual prestige, many contemporary readers, writers, and critics are unexcited by realist fiction, seeing it as bourgeois and imaginatively constraining, incapable of artistic innovation or political fire. 

Indeed, realism’s radical origins are easy to forget. As a coherent literary and artistic movement, it came into maturity in the mid-nineteenth century, most prominently in France, where painters like Courbet and Manet and novelists like Flaubert and Zola sought to depict contemporary life truthfully. Their realism was democratic in its outlook, seeing workers and poor people—coal miners, servants, prostitutes, street peddlers—as worthy subjects for art.   

In its insistence that every person, no matter how slighted by society, is worthy of attention, Strout’s fiction has a kinship with nineteenth-century realism. Her humane fiction, which carefully traces the emotionally complex lives of small-town pharmacists, janitors, and schoolteachers, has deep roots in George Eliot, who guarded the best of her love for neglected, unexceptional people, and Tolstoy, so transparent in his style that to read a page is to dip unselfconsciously into life itself. Strout’s nearest ancestor is the Canadian short-story writer Alice Munro, who like Strout makes us keenly aware of the stifled feelings of large-souled women enclosed in frigid towns. 

Today we can speak of an entire school of compassionate New England realists—including the writers Andre Dubus III and Paul Harding, and the filmmaker Kenneth Lonergan—of which Strout may be the most skilled practitioner. Dubus and Lonergan animate their otherwise muted fictional universes by inserting melodrama at the center. In Dubus’s novel Gone So Long (2018), for example, a man stabs his wife in front of their daughter. And in Lonergan’s Hardyesque Manchester by the Sea (2016) the protagonist in his drunken carelessness lets his house, with his children asleep inside, burn to the ground; Lonergan makes us watch as child-sized body-bags are wheeled out from the wreckage.  

Strout shares their interest in the guilt that disfigures ordinary lives, but her touch is more subtle, her moral dilemmas less stark. The virtues and frailties of her best-loved character, the acerbic and blunt Olive Kitteridge, provide a case in point. Nearing death in Olive, Again—Strout’s new short-story collection published this fall—Olive, a retired schoolteacher in small-town Maine, wonders whether she has been a decent person and a good mother. She confides to a friend that in his last years her late husband “became very needy. And I wasn’t—I just wasn’t very nice to him.”  

Olive charms readers precisely because she isn’t nice. She speaks plainly and sharply. She has a weakness for doughnuts. In Olive Kitteridge (2008) she defaces her snotty daughter-in-law’s sweaters with a Magic Marker in a burst of embarrassment and rage. “Never did I think I would write about Olive Kitteridge again,” Strout admits in a letter to readers enclosed in the front of Olive, Again. But Olive returned, demanding to be brought back to life. 


* * *

Strout’s literary career came to her late in life, and she writes with the quiet firmness of someone whose chance to speak has been hard-won. After a lonely childhood in Maine came college, at Bates. In her twenties she worked as a cocktail waitress, her evening shifts at the bar freeing up daytime hours for writing. Later, in law school at Syracuse, she would slip Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin inside her textbook in constitutional-law class. By the time she was forty she had published only a handful of short stories. 

With her first novel, Amy and Isabelle (1998), a restrained examination of a girl’s affair with her high-school teacher, Strout established her central preoccupations: small towns, complicated mothers, and the constraints that follow from each. Next came three more books set in Maine. The underrated Abide With Me (2006), set in the late 1950s, focused on a priest recovering from the death of his young wife. Another novel, The Burgess Boys (2013), tracked the fallout from a white Maine teenager tossing a bleeding pig’s head into a local mosque. And Olive Kitteridge, a collection of stories circling around prickly, honest Olive, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009.  

Not until her novella-length My Name Is Lucy Barton (2016)—a portrait of a woman who grew up desperately poor, fishing for stale cakes in the garbage, dreaming of one day writing books that would make people feel less alone—did Strout venture outside of Maine. The setting of Lucy Barton and its sequel, the 2017 short-story collection Anything Is Possible—Amgash, Illinois—introduced fresh variations on her long-tested theme of provincial claustrophobia.  

The descriptor most often attached to Strout’s writing is “unsentimental.” “Unsentimental and unflinching,” the Financial Times declared of Anything Is Possible. “Beautifully unsentimental,” the New Yorker wrote of Lucy Barton. These are just two examples; I could give dozens. Perhaps critics always insist on Strout’s avoidance of sentimentality to manage, or apologize for, the almost unbearably intense pathos her stories evoke.  

“I go in dread of ‘sentimentality,’” Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary, puzzling over how she would end her novel To the Lighthouse (1927). Does Strout? In pursuit of the strong emotions she wants to elicit from readers, she approaches the precipice of sentimentality without succumbing to it. 

Consider one scene from a story in her most astonishing book to date. In “Windmills,” from Anything Is Possible, a guidance counselor students have cruelly nicknamed “Fatty Patty” recalls sharing a bed with her husband, now dead. As a boy he was raped repeatedly by his stepfather: 

In their marriage bed they held hands, and never went any further. Often, during the first years especially, he had terrible dreams, and he would kick the covers and squeal, it was a frightening sound. She noticed that he was aroused when this happened, and she was always sure to touch only his shoulders until he calmed down. Then she rubbed his forehead. “It’s okay, honey,” she always said. He would stare at the ceiling, his hands in fists. Thank you, he said. Turning his face toward her, Thank you, Patty, he said. 

That this moment of recollection comes directly after a student has taunted Patty—saying the town knows “Fatty Patty never did it with her husband”—offers a searing reminder of how little we grasp about other people. 

Strout seems aware that her fiction is so emotionally charged that a future generation, with its altered sensibility, might deem it sentimental after all. In Lucy Barton, the eponymous heroine meets Sarah Payne, an author whose work, a man tells Lucy at a party, is deformed by a “softness of compassion.” Lucy reflects: “Still, I liked her books. I like writers who try to tell you something truthful.”  

Strout shares some obvious features with Lucy, down to a nickname, “Wizzle,” given to each by her mother. Yet she finds an equally resonant double in the emotionally damaged, riskily compassionate Sarah Payne, whose name evokes Strout’s transparency of style (a pane of glass) and the human suffering which is her ultimate subject. The echoes within Lucy Barton’s name are just as important: the title recalls the classic nineteenth-century novel of poverty Mary Barton (1848), whose author (another Elizabeth) declares in the preface that she aims to give voice to the anguish of Manchester’s factory-workers, whose sufferings “pass unregarded” by the rich. Since the mid-nineteenth century, literature’s power to cultivate the reader’s sympathies has been a prominent claim for its value. For Strout, the strengthening of the moral emotions is not merely a happy byproduct of reading. It is the guiding principle of her design.  

In one sense Strout’s writing, filled with subtle descriptions of American class markers, is utterly of our political moment. Revealingly, though, her most explicitly “political” novel is also her weakest. The analysis of conflicts between white Mainers and Somali immigrants in The Burgess Boys is well-meaning but thin. Despite some moments of deep generosity toward her Somali characters—as when the Somali elder Abdikarim awakes with a shout, having dreamed about the armed raids on his shop back home in Mogadishu—Strout’s true interest is in the internal dynamics of the white Burgess family, forced by the desecration of the mosque to confront long-buried truths about each other.  

Fiction rarely manages to grasp shifting political dynamics by ripping events from the headlines, as the comparatively unfocused weakness of Burgess Boys makes plain. When in Olive, Again Olive realizes with anger that her home health aide is a Trump voter, a delicate story risks becoming a heavy-handed parable about tolerance. 

If Strout’s fiction is “political,” that is because our daily acts of work, friendship, love, and anger are the stuff of politics. She is concerned with more than tender feeling. Many of the episodes in Olive, Again center explicitly around situations of mutual aid. An old man on a walk stumbles upon one of his child’s classmates, “that handsome Woodcock boy,” reeling across a bench, catatonic on opioids. In “Helped,” another story from Olive, Again, a lawyer and a woman whose family home has just burned to the ground rescue one another from their respective demons: for him, years of corrupt secrets that have settled over him like a stench; for her, the shock of almost unimaginable parental cruelty.  

At a time when popular culture permits fellow feeling mostly in shallow, easily consumable form (as in heartwarming advertising or adorable clickbait), and when political media call for the wholesale rejection of empathy for political antagonists (migrants, or Black Lives Matter activists, or college students, or Trump voters), Strout is doing something different. She is helping to keep alive our capacities for mature sympathy. Her work does not cultivate a squishy acceptance of racism, selfishness, or other forms of cruelty. Quite the contrary. It asks us to imagine the concerns and circumstances of other human beings as a starting point for understanding them. 


* * * 

Olive, Again marks Strout’s third fine book in four years. It follows her heroine through her seventies and eighties: a second marriage, a heart attack, a move to a nursing home. This older Olive is more chastened and benevolent than she was in Olive Kitteridge, more prone to ruminate on her mistakes. Yet she keeps her stubbornness and sting. In one scene, she delivers a baby in the backseat of her car (at another woman’s baby shower). In another, she makes a cameo at an open-air art market, overheard groaning, “God, have I seen enough of this crap.” 

Although Olive, Again declares itself to be a novel, the book is, like Olive Kitteridge and Anything Is Possible, a collection of linked stories. Most focus on Olive. In the few stories that foreground other members of the town, she remains a minor but decisive presence.  

Through these fragments Strout assembles a portrait of a community that Olive, through her many years of teaching, has subtly but indelibly marked, even if she never felt quite at home within it. The collection rotates through multiple points of view, reminding us that a person who plays only a  marginal role in someone else’s story nevertheless always has a life and consciousness of equal vividness. 

The short-story cycle is a format that suits Strout’s writerly gifts as well as her moral commitments. Her imagination runs “short” rather than “long.” She draws energy from character portraits (a troubled old man who has accepted, unquestioningly, a life spent working in the textile mill) and stand-alone situations (Olive’s second husband, tipsy and arrogant, being pulled over by a cop whose sadism is literalized by the erection pushing against his uniform trousers). Yet her fiction runs at speed; psychological analysis does not entail stasis. Strout is precise and efficient in giving life to characters, even ones we barely meet, such as Bertha Babcock, a stern Dickensianly named widow who makes a girl scrub her kitchen tiles with a toothbrush.  

Olive, Again functions as a sequel not just to Olive Kitteridge but to all of Strout’s books save the double act of Lucy Barton and Anything Is Possible, which exist in a separate, Midwest-rooted fictional universe. One chapter resumes the story of the Burgess family. In another Olive, isolated in her nursing home, befriends a woman named Isabelle—the very same from Strout’s debut Amy and Isabelle. Even Bertha Babcock herself is resurrected from Abide With Me, despite the fact that the previous novel takes place more than half a century earlier.  

These intertextual appearances will excite Strout’s fans. But there are too many of them, and the summaries of past novels that introduce each reprise mar the book’s artistry. It’s as if Strout felt the need to say farewell not just to Olive but to the entire body of work preceding Lucy Barton—and to the Maine that has been so imaginatively generative for her. 


* * *

Despite our aging population, American literature has given scant attention to old people or nursing homes, those shadowy sites where our parents and grandparents are exiled in their final years so that we don’t have to witness their deterioration. But nursing homes have fascinated Strout for a long time. In Abide With Me, the minister’s housekeeper confesses to committing mercy killings of her nursing-home residents, spooning graham-cracker mush into their mouths until they choke and drown. In that novel, the nursing home is attached to the same building as the county jail. For Strout, these are twinned institutions, alike in their coerciveness. 

The housekeeper’s murders are motivated by pity flooded with misunderstanding. But in other instances Strout shows how nursing homes can also occasion more unambiguous, if less extreme, acts of cruelty. A story in Olive Kitteridge about an alcoholic piano player describes how the piano player’s mother, who dominated her daughter’s life, is now tottering in a nursing home. And on the slack arms of that paralyzed old woman are bruises. Who, the pianist wonders, has been pinching my mother?  

Strout frequently treats vulnerability as a path to transcendence or redemption: in Abide With Me the minister weeps, deranged with sorrow, in front of his entire congregation. The nursing home draws her interest, then, because it is a place of extreme vulnerability and zero consent. There, such powerlessness marks not an epiphanic break but a routine condition. The account of old age in Olive, Again is a further step in this direction, so unsparing that it is hard for the reader to bear. Olive sobs in embarrassment after putting on bright lipstick to impress a doctor she is in love with. She can no longer reach down to clip her toenails. She buys diapers to deal with her humiliating “leaking.” 

Strout’s attentiveness to the humiliations of aging isn’t limited to Olive alone. She and her fellow nursing-home resident Isabelle fear falling in the shower and being ordered “over the bridge”—where residents are sent when they’re deemed in need of more intense care.  They agree to check on each other every morning and evening. When Olive opens the door to Isabelle’s apartment one morning, she hears her friend speaking to herself in a babyish voice: “Mommy, do you think I’m a good girl?” 

Isabelle is carrying on a dialogue with herself, playing the roles of both “daughter” and “mommy.” A chilling scene of infantile regression follows: 

Baby voice: “Mommy, I need to take a shower.” 

Adult voice: “Okay, honey. You can do that.” 

Baby voice: “I can? Because sometimes I get scared. That I’ll fall or something,  Mommy.” 

The horror of these nursing-home sequences makes plain that Strout’s writing, for all its compassion, contains a streak of sadism. (The cruel, aroused police officer provides a first hint in this direction; another character who works as a professional dominatrix offers a second.) There’s a deliberate strategy at work. Strout lures us in to feel deep attachment and pity toward her damaged characters. Then she humiliates and injures them, punishing them so we can feel their pain more acutely. (Think of the tender, exposed bruises on the arm of the piano player’s mother.) As the characters suffer, we readers ascend to more exquisite heights of compassion. From one perspective, this is moral education; from another, it is sadomasochism.  

This undercurrent of brutality is no fault in Strout’s vision. The cruelty adds rigor to her account of the indignities and depleted capacities of old age. Realism is harsh; so is reality. Strout’s moral commitment to analyzing frailty and loss, coupled with her artistic commitment to realism, all but assures that the scenes in the nursing home will be as pitiless and unidealized as their real-life counterparts.  

What separates Strout’s work from a gratuitous exercise in cruelty is the fact that she never for a moment loses her grip on the complex humanity of her characters. She records their mundane sorrows but also their sensory delights.  

Her fiction has a lyrical capacity for capturing states of heightened perception: awe at the light in February, or at the reddening leaves in autumn, or at the “essential loneliness,” the “gaping darkness,” of people. In one story from Anything Is Possible, a child sees God in the woods. She does not know that her father is at the very same moment finding another kind of ecstasy in those very same woods: he is (secretly, shamefully) gay, and meets his lover outdoors. Only when she grows up does the girl recognize her father’s passion, his willingness to risk everything, “simply to be near the white dazzle of the sun that somehow for those moments seemed to leave the earth behind.”  

Strout has long cherished such exalted states of consciousness. In Abide With Me, she gave this phenomenon a name. The novel’s hero, a handsome, widowed minister—whose young wife was thought to be too wild, too flirtatious, to be married to a small-town priest—calls this elevated state The Feeling. When The Feeling arrives, the minister can perceive the presence of God through natural beauty. In flickers of light, showers of yellow leaves, something stirs. He feels “the sharp, cold winter air stab into his nostrils.” The Feeling rushes in. 

Olive, Again is similarly religious in its vocabulary and in the value it places on reverie, wonder, awe. The object of its faith is the beauty of the world. Olive, living alone after her second husband’s death, can see the trees from her house: “here was the world, screeching its beauty at her day after day, and she felt grateful for it.” As the book ends, Olive thinks about her own death while looking at a rosebush she has planted. 


* * * 

By almost any measure, Strout is an extraordinarily successful writer. She has a Pulitzer to her name; her books have been bestsellers and adapted for television and the stage. Other midcareer American novelists who are at once so popular and so praised—Colson Whitehead, Jennifer Egan, and George Saunders might join Strout in this category—make up a very short list. 

Yet for all this success Strout has been dismissed by a certain kind of critical elite as overly commercial and not formally innovative. While authors like Whitehead, Egan, and Saunders display glittering formal experimentation—composing allegories about slavery, or inserting PowerPoint presentations into the text of their novels—Strout is working in a more traditional mode. Her quiet realism tracks subtle shifts in mood and perception. In this mode, however, she achieves a higher level of artistic sophistication and moral wisdom than do almost all of her American realist contemporaries (of which there are many—contemporary fiction with “literary” aspirations strives endlessly for the delicate rendering of ordinary life, but few writers have the sharp judgment needed for this task). She writes about small towns, but she is not provincial. 

Because Strout’s work draws almost all its power from empathy and recognition, readers who believe realism obsolete or dismiss empathy as elite self-congratulation will find her fiction a paradigmatic example of a dying art. And yet, even while assurances about literature’s ability to cultivate moral character have become stale—stale because so often asserted in isolation from any particular artwork that might claim such power—Strout has chosen, in her fiction, to demonstrate calmly the endurance of this most potent and derided of literature’s functions. Her love for the opaque depths of ordinary people is unfashionable. But perhaps that is the point.   


Posted on 18 December 2019

CHARLIE TYSON is a PhD candidate in English literature at Harvard.