Olive Kitteridge is back in Elizabeth Strout’s sequel, Olive, Again. It’s been over ten years since we last heard from Olive, and she is still the acerbic, cantankerous, highly opinionated, yet reservedly empathetic Olive that we’ve come to know and love. Strout won the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for Olive Kitteridge, a novel in short stories all interconnected by the title character; HBO produced a mini-series starring Francis McDormand as Olive, as well. The book opens in Olive’s coastal community of Crosby, Maine. Through thirteen interconnected stories, Strout examines the vagaries of family relationships, grief, estrangement, loneliness, and regret. You needn’t read Olive Kitteridge to enjoy the sequel, but you’ll want to.
Olive’s husband, Henry has been dead for two years and Olive is in her seventies as the book opens. After some reticence, Olive and Jack Kennison, a retired Harvard professor who has also recently been widowed and is estranged from his gay daughter, reconnect.
Olive invites her son Christopher and his family for a visit. She hasn’t seen him for three years and he and his wife have recently had a new baby. Olive is clearly partial to her husband’s namesake, Henry, and has knitted him a red scarf, while neglecting to gift any of the other children. The children are wary of Olive’s outspoken and harsh nature. As Christopher and his family prepare to leave, she announces that she is getting remarried to Jack and the tenuous bond she has attempted to mend during their visit, ruptures. After they leave, Olive finds that Henry has left behind his red scarf.
In another story, Olive attends a baby shower for a local woman and is peeved by the tiresome process of unwrapping gifts and sending them around the room for everyone to admire. When another guest at the party goes into labor, Olive sensing an opportunity to escape, offers to drive her to the hospital but ends up delivering the baby in the back seat of her car.
Strout, almost reluctantly reveals to us the empathetic vein at Olive’s center. When Olive runs into a former student, Cindy Coombs at the grocery store and learns that she has cancer, Olive visits her unannounced one day. At first Cindy is hesitant to receive her, but over a series of visits Cindy and Olive discuss mortality and their relationships with their husbands. Olive shares with Cindy her regrets over how she had treated her first husband, Henry and confesses that she has become a “tiny – tiny – bit better as a person” but regrets that Henry is not there to receive the benefit of it. Cindy acknowledges that Olive has become a friend of sorts, visiting her regularly when her former friends do not.
Olive reserves her empathy and friendship for those who need it the most. She is not drawn to the popular residents at the Senior Citizens complex where she moves after suffering a heart attack and the death of her second husband, Jack. She prefers to connect with Isabelle, who shares similar heartaches and secrets and – who also wears the adult diapers that Olive disdains but has become dependent upon.
Throughout the stories in Olive, Again, we see the old Olive – the one quick to judge, the one that pushes people away, the one that can be unbearably brash – but we see an aging Olive as well – one who is reflective, writing out her memories on a typewriter that Christopher, reconciled after Olive’s heart attack, provides for her.
Elizabeth Strout is one of the greatest fiction writers of her generation. Her prose is spare, her revelations are nuanced, and her characters are complex, revealing the truth of all that it means to be human. What a thing, as Olive would say.
At the end of the novel, Olive runs into a former student, Andrea, who became the United States Poet Laureate. The following spring, someone anonymously sends Olive a poem written by Andrea, based upon their conversation. Olive is offended by Andrea’s characterization of her, but then realizes that “Andrea had gotten it better than she had, the experience of being another.” Perhaps that is the greatest gift of Strout’s Olive, Again.
I recommend Olive, Again for fans of character-driven fiction, for fans of Olive Kitteridge and A Man Called Ove.
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