Olive Kitteridge is getting old. She’s just had a heart attack, and her son, Christopher, has made the necessary arrangements for her recovery, setting up round-the-clock homecare. On bedrest, Olive bonds with one nurse’s aide, Halima, the daughter of Somali refugees from the town where Olive once lived; she clashes with another, Betty, a former student of hers, now all grown up and driving around town with a Trump bumper sticker slapped on her car. Olive and Betty spend a lot of time together, though, and both are pretty lonely. One day, Betty breaks down in tears while recounting a terrible day. Olive, in sympathy, asks what her life is like. Through tears, Betty waves her off: “Oh, it’s just a life, Olive.”
Well, not in an Elizabeth Strout novel. Across two books charting the life of Olive Kitteridge, as indelible and lifelike a creation as you’ll find in contemporary fiction, the acclaimed author has captured more than three decades of one woman’s mundane existence, breathing into it the majestic power of her sharp, spare prose. Olive Kitteridge, published in 2008, is arguably Strout’s most acclaimed book. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and composed of interlinked stories, it introduced readers to the fictional coastal community of Crosby, Maine, in which its crabby, impulsive, quick-witted heroine taught middle-school math, waded through a difficult marriage, raised a moody son, battled depression and widowhood and the seemingly endless line of stupid — yes, her choice word, “stupid” — people who’d come into her path. She was a true original: her isms — “Oh Godfrey” and “phooey to you” and “dopey-dope” — making you howl one second, her regrets and vivid pain wringing tears the next.
Strout’s characters tend to reappear — whether in subsequent books or other media, like HBO’s Emmy-winning Olive Kitteridge adaptation (starring Frances McDormand) — but they feel defiantly hers, from New York to Illinois to Maine, forming a poignant tapestry of human experience. And so Olive returns 11 years later, improbably, in a sequel that’s even better than the original. Olive, Again builds into the closest thing to an epic that Strout has fashioned. Strout, as ever, doesn’t reinvent the wheel here: again we read interrelated stories, Olive centered in some and skirting the edges of others, and again regular folks enter the spotlight, sometimes encountering the bizarre, other times reckoning with unrelenting sameness. But the novel welcomes several characters from Strout’s previous books, going back more than 20 years into her bibliography; they converge with Olive’s regulars, subtly, in a final chapter that ranks among the author’s most moving pieces of writing to date.
Olive, Again launches with a piece focused on widower Jack Kennison, the wealthy right-winger Olive romanced after her husband, Henry, died. Olive couldn’t stand Jack’s politics, yet they’d bonded in grief; as this new book opens, they’ve separated, unable to admit to the other they wish it weren’t so. But Olive, in the section of the book that follows, musters the courage to end the stalemate. Called “Labor,” it’s a vintage Olive story, weird and funny and melancholy. She delivers a stranger’s baby in the back of her car. She forgets to bring a gift to a baby shower she can’t bear to sit through. She bluntly tells anyone who will listen that her grandbaby died in childbirth — “She had to wait and push the baby out dead,” goes the refrain — in part because she’s struggling to process the trauma, and in part because she’s never less than utterly direct. And she calls Jack. “Let’s get this over with,” she tells herself beforehand.
Strout follows Olive over roughly a decade, from her mid-70s to her mid-80s, the throughline being that — without Henry by her side, with her son Christopher living another life in New York — she’s only now starting to realize who she is. Or maybe she has less of a sense than ever. Olive’s dynamic with Christopher improves slightly as she examines the failures of her parenting; she and Jack get married, and they travel and make each other laugh. But the reality of missed opportunity seeps in as well. Olive tells a younger woman later in the book, “I feel like I’ve become, oh, just a tiny — tiny — bit better as a person, and it makes me sick Henry didn’t get any of that from me.”
Olive, Again explores aging with profound grace, forcing its characters to face what they’ll leave behind, or what they’ve been left with. Its brief interlude, the seven-page-long “The Walk,” follows an older man wandering around his neighborhood, his mind winding toward memories of his children, his first love, and finally his wife; “Exiles” devotes an entire section to Jim and Bob Burgess of Strout’s 2013 novel The Burgess Boys, as well as their wives, each of them confronting absent feelings of belonging, of home, as they grow old. Two spikier entrants consider loss from young women’s perspectives: a teenager who’s just lost her father, entering into a twisted relationship with her male employer, in “Cleaning”; the adult daughter of an abusive man resisting a massive inheritance in “Helped.”
Strout crafts each story expertly, but Olive, Again gains novelistic momentum as it expands, too. The finale, “Friend,” revives one of Strout’s oldest characters, and places her beside Olive for a poetic denouement about death’s imminence that feels so alive it toys with your heart, teetering between silly, sweet, and sad. Leave it to Olive to find that balance. She’s irascible, sure, but she’s so awake to life’s possibilities and limits, her joy and her sorrow, that you can’t really blame her. There’s a lot going on in this world, a lot to be angry about, plenty to mourn. For decades, Strout’s work has focused on the beauty of the ordinary, the drama and humor and tragedy lurking within it. Each life is meaningful, she so persuasively argues, and every once in a while we can brush that meaning up against one another. As we reach the end and make peace with lives imperfectly lived, that’s where the magic is. A