Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout. If you enjoyed Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge , you will love reading Olive, Again, the sequel. Oh, to be able to write like Elizabeth Strout! Olive is sui generis……..except I find in myself an occasional alarming similarity to some of her traits. There’s still her craggy, occasionally harsh humor, but in this sequel Olive has mellowed a little. She remains quick to judge but reflects a developing capacity for empathy. Small town Crosby, Maine is about ordinary people leading ordinary lives, but Strout softly digs down into their complexity, and all the characters have at least one thread connecting them to Olive Kitteridge. whose own story is woven throughout. Strout’s honest portrayal of the challenge of loneliness for old people and her unblinking description of physical deterioration and diminution of dignity pack an emotional wallop. I hated to have the book end.
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens tells the story of Kya Clark, abandoned by her mother at the age of six in a small town on the North Carolina coast. Left with her alcoholic and abusive father, with her older siblings also having fled, “Marsh Girl,” as she becomes known locally, learns to fend for herself. She grows into a teenager and young adult at one with the wildlife in the swamp, isolated but for occasional trips to town by boat for gasoline, grits and a few other basic supplies. As she comes of age, with nature as her only teacher, she has relationships with two boys, both of whom abandon her. There is a murder and a trial, all happening against the backdrop of racial and social differences. But the strength of this gripping novel is the beauty of the lush writing, the breathless capturing of the plants, animals, sea surrounding Kya, tensions as people’s secrets are revealed, and the profound question of what strengths we might find within ourselves to survive loneliness, abuse, desperation.
The Leavers by Lisa Ko is also a story about abandonment. The child left behind is 11-year-old Deming Guo, a boy born in New York to an undocumented immigrant from Fuzhou, China who disappears one day, leaving him with her Chinese lover, his sister (Deming’s “aunt”) and his sister’s son, Michael, (Deming’s “cousin.”) Ultimately, Aunt Vivian arranges for Deming to be raised by foster parents Kay and Peter, professors in a suburban community upstate, where Deming, now renamed Daniel, is the only Chinese child. The book’s focus is Deming’s effort to find his mother and, in the process, find himself, who he is in others’ eyes, who he wants to be, and the community in which he feels most at home. It is a story about the harsh realities faced every day by undocumented immigrants and harsh ICE policies that fail to consider the humanity of those seeking better lives in America. The readers’ sympathies change as the perspectives shift back and forth between the abandoned son and the highly imperfect mother. A very interesting and readable first novel.
Normal People by young Irish writer Sally Rooney gets better and better as it goes along, digging deeper into the on again-off again-on again relationship between two young people, their aching coming of age, their class differences (her family is wealthy, dysfunctional, abusive; his family lives on the edge). His mother, a single mom, cleans house for her mother and provides Connell with a loving and understanding home environment. Connell and Marianne are highly intelligent students awkward with their peers and uncomfortable in their own skins. So they explore each other’s skins….and more. Rooney probes their deep intuition and their painful miscommunication with each other, their lack of self- esteem, alienation, depression. They return to each other time and again, with hope at the end for a brighter future. The book alternates between Marianne’s and Connell’s perspectives, making the narrative all the more compelling.