Olive Kitteridge is easy to dislike. She’s ornery, curmudgeonly and particularly fond of describing both people and things as “stupid.” But leave it to the brilliant Elizabeth Strout to once again make her sympathetic in her new novel, Olive, Again.
Just about ten years after the Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge came out, Strout returns to Crosby, Maine, with 13 unforgettable stories about aging, mourning and living in a small town—all related to Olive or the people in her orbit.
Picking up soon after the last book left off, Olive, Again finds our heroine widowed, with her son, Christopher, living far away with a family of his own. Olive now has a lot of time to reflect on her life, most specifically, her regrets. Of her late husband, Strout writes, “Why did Olive rebuff his neediness? ‘What crime had he been committing,’ she wonders, ‘except to ask for her love?’”
As a 70- and 80-something, the consideration of legacy is a major theme for Olive. In a chapter called "The Poet," Olive’s former-student-turned-famous-author returns to Crosby, and the two have an interaction that’s surprisingly tender, considering Olive’s assertion that, “if there was one student who was not going to be famous, it was Andrea L’Rieux.” However, when someone anonymously sends Olive a poem Andrea has written about her, the older woman is crushed; it’s clear Andrea does not hold her old teacher in particularly high regard.
But lest you think Olive has gone soft, there’s still plenty of trademark cantankerousness. For instance, when her son and his family come for a visit, Olive’s awkwardness is thinly veiled: “Okay then, all right then," Olive says of her granddaughter, before handing her back to her mother to calm down.
Much like the original Olive Kitteridge, there are several chapters that cede the spotlight to both new and recurring characters in the Strout literary universe. The opening chapter, for example, focuses on Jack Kennison, a former Harvard professor and Olive’s on-again, off-again boyfriend who eventually becomes her husband. Another Olive-adjacent story, “The End of the Civil War Days,” zeroes in on a couple living in silent disdain for each other, until their daughter visits to let them know she’s become a dominatrix. The saddest story, “Helped,” focuses on the Larkin family (also featured in Olive Kitteridge) after the death of its patriarch in a drug-related fire.
The novel wraps up with a particularly excellent pair of chapters which follow Olive into an assisted living facility where she meets another character from a former Strout novel. (We won’t ruin the surprise here and tell you who.) It’s a genuinely sweet friendship, as is watching Olive’s adherence to dignity and to doing things the “right” way, even as she gives up more and more of her independence.
Never one to sugarcoat things, Strout keeps Olive frustrating up until the very end. But she’s also fiery, smart and at times almost cringingly relatable. In short, we wouldn’t have her any other way.