Older Characters in Fiction: Background information when reading Olive, Again

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Olive, Again

A Novel

by Elizabeth Strout

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout X
Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2019, 304 pages
    Nov 2020, 320 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Foster
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About this Book

Older Characters in Fiction

This article relates to Olive, Again

Print Review

Covers of novels featuring older charactersThe elderly are often underrepresented in popular culture, and where these characters do exist, they are often one-dimensional. The most effective depictions of elderly people demonstrate that age does not limit one's ability to have an interesting inner life, new adventures, and/or the chance for romance. In short, they resist the notion that life is over when one retires or becomes a widow/widower.

One way to combat the stereotypical characterization of blank or confused elderly people is to give them a rich intellectual life. Penelope Lively's Booker Prize-winning Moon Tiger (1987) explores the layers of 76-year-old Claudia Hampton's personal history. To all appearances, there's not much going on in this old woman's head as she lies on her deathbed. Readers know better: Claudia's brain is hosting a sumptuous tour of her experiences, from meeting the love of her life as a World War II correspondent in Egypt, to participating in a film shoot in Mexico. Like Claudia, Morayo Da Silva, the protagonist of Sarah Ladipo Manyika's Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun (2016), has a past full of travel and romance, the memories of which sustain her through her physical struggles in a nursing home.

Sometimes, though, adventure isn't all in the past for older characters. In Rachel Joyce's The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2012), a retired man goes for a walk and ends up trekking 627 miles in honor of an ailing coworker who once did him a kindness. In Jonas Jonasson's The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (2012), centenarian Allan Karlsson escapes his nursing home and is pursued by criminals after he inadvertently steals a suitcase full of cash.

Allan has a female counterpart in 79-year-old Martha Anderson, the heroine of a series written by Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg that begins with The Little Old Lady Who Broke All the Rules (2012). Martha and her "League of Pensioners" rebel against their care home regulations and plot an escape. In The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old (2014) and its sequel, On the Bright Side, Hendrik and five friends form an "Old But Not Dead" club and plan exciting weekly outings from their Amsterdam nursing home. Janina Dusezjko, the protagonist of Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (2019) by Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk, is dismissed as a hysterical old crone in her Polish village when she uses her astrology skills to try to solve the murders of four local men. Richard Osman's series, The Thursday Murder Club, stars octogenarian amateur detectives. From these examples, it seems European authors are well ahead of Americans in terms of creating sprightly elderly characters.

A final way of giving older characters agency is to allow them to fall in love again. In Major Pettigrew's Last Stand (2010) by Helen Simonson, the retired major scandalizes the village of Edgecombe St. Mary in Sussex, England by courting Mrs. Ali, a widowed Pakistani shopkeeper. Our Souls at Night (2015) by Kent Haruf is a sweet, celibate love story about Colorado neighbors who were widowed years ago and simply long for someone to talk to at night. By contrast, in Blossoms in Autumn (2019), a graphic novel by Zidrou, the aging characters have a sexual relationship, but the impressionistic drawing style portrays it tastefully. Lastly, Howard Jacobson's Live a Little (2019) is a comic romance between two Londoners in their 90s.

Particularly over the last ten years, fiction has seen a flourishing of interest in older characters. It can be inspirational to engage with protagonists who, like Olive Kitteridge in Olive, Again, know their own minds and aren't passively drifting towards infirmity and death. They're living each day of their lives, and seizing the adventures and chances at love that come their way.

Filed under Reading Lists

Article by Rebecca Foster

This "beyond the book article" relates to Olive, Again. It originally ran in December 2019 and has been updated for the November 2020 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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