After years of plugging away at her writing, Elizabeth Strout finally had her first book published at the age of 53. It was a successful debut, but it was her remarkable third novel, “Olive Kitteridge” (2008), that cemented her reputation as one of the best writers of her generation. The story of a cantankerous anti-heroine, it sold a million copies, won a Pulitzer Prize and became an award winning HBO miniseries starring Frances McDormand.
In the years that followed “Olive Kitteridge,” the author wrote two more bestsellers: “My Name Is Lucy Barton” and “Anything Is Possible,” but her readership craved more of Olive’s world. Thankfully, we got it, and Olive is back in the long-awaited sequel, “Olive, Again” (Random House). In the book, Strout returns to the drowsy fictional coastal Maine town of Crosby and its residents, adding endings on some of their stories and introducing readers to new ones. Does she recapture the magic of the first book? Absolutely! The characters may be older and frailer, but it’s a deeply moving story that’s a hymn to second chances and reinforces the notion that even old, cranky dogs can learn new tricks.
Like its predecessor, “Olive, Again” is made up of interconnected stories that have the range and depth of a novel. This is a literary form which Sherwood Anderson used with his book, “Winesburg, Ohio “(one reviewer said that “Strout has at this point pretty much out-Winesburged [Anderson] with her cumulative, time-lapse portrait of the people of Crosby, Maine”). The 13 “episodes” can be read either as individual stories, or together, in an all-encompassing narrative. As a whole, it captures both a timeless picture of human isolation as well as a very contemporary view of America on the brink of the 2016 presidential election.
The stories take place two years after the death of her husband, Henry, and Olive – a retired seventh grade math teacher – is a widow dealing with the loneliness that comes with old age, and the baggage of the past. It’s no surprise that grief has not softened her, nor has she mellowed with age – she is still blunt, erratic and ornery (Olive has been referred to as “one of the great, difficult women of American literature”). But under that hard exterior there is kindness and vulnerability as she becomes increasingly aware of her own mortality
The tales are told from a range of perspectives, and they explore Strout’s preoccupations with grief, loneliness and family torments. A bereft schoolgirl struggles to understand her distanced mother, and finds odd comfort with a much older man. A woman returns to deal with her father’s death in a house fire. Sorting through the ashes of her memory, she has painful recollections of childhood abuse. Outside of town we meet a couple at war. Unable to talk about their feelings of a long-ago marital infidelity (“back then there was no forgiveness and no divorce”), they have barely spoken to each other for 35 of their 42 years of marriage. They have come to an established and absurd “arrangement” living with yellow strips of duct tape dividing the living room floor. “Each night Ethel made dinner and placed her plate on one side of the kitchen table and her husband’s on the other.” Naturally, the biggest issue was the television.
In some stories, Olive is just a peripheral part, a neighborhood busybody, an eccentric unnoticed on the street. Elsewhere, we get in on her innermost thoughts as she reflects on her feelings for Jack, a retired Harvard professor, and the experience of their new relationship after several false starts and failures. We eavesdrop on their sleep, as they hold each other, “their large old bodies, shipwrecked, thrown up upon the shore.” We watch them cope with the often painful realities of aging, such as toenail cutting and incontinence pants and trying to know – and understand – each other’s children. Strout’s prose is unwavering; she spells out, in delectable detail, the extremely unpleasant things that people think in private – how they resent each other’s money, or lack of it; their dislike of each other’s arrogance, narrow-mindedness or poverty; or the fact that they happen to be French Canadian. One character is “bothered” simply by “the way” her sister-in-law looks. “She had forgotten that Margaret had such large breasts. They seemed positively huge.”
For all its darkness, “Olive, Again” does have a lot of beauty. Strout’s writing is lovely and straightforward, with exquisite bits of descriptive grace: “It was low tide, and the seaweed lay like combed rough hair, all in one direction. The boats that remained in the bay sat graciously, their thin masts pointing to the heavens like tiny steeples.” And Olive, a large woman with a clumsy walk, is a romantic at heart. She is consistently surprised by the splendor of the “February light,” or “a glorious autumn” in which “the world sparkled, and the yellows and reds, and orange and pale pinks.”
The real beauty of this book is found in its portrayal of human relationships, particularly those relationships in the process of trying again. That interest in life’s small revivals, so subtlety concealed in that title pun (O live, again), is on just about every page. To read “Olive, Again” is to get the sense that stories can be a liberating force. They give us a second chance at things. A way to live, and see, things again, anew.