Olive, Again

Elizabeth Strout

Viking, £14.99

Review by Rosemary Goring

Olive Kitteridge, a painfully honest maths teacher in the coastal town of Crosby, Maine, first appeared in Elizabeth Strout’s eponymous novel, which later became a film, memorably starring Frances McDormand.

Strout, a Pulitzer prizewinner, seems unable to resist the pull of this thistly yet kind and even poetic character. Olive, Again picks up her story, bringing Olive from recent widowhood to Harry – Holy Harry as he is known to her long-suffering second husband Jack – through late middle age into her senior years.

Those unfamiliar with Olive can plunge into this sequel, where Strout deftly fills in a few of the most significant plotlines from her character’s eventful past. Among these is the suicide of Olive’s father, and her guilt over not being nicer to her first husband before his final illness. Hence Harry’s near sanctification when she thinks of him, being (perhaps justifiably) hard on herself.

Olive, Again does not revolve entirely around its central character. The whole fictional community of Crosby becomes fodder for Strout’s compassionately observational eye, and while chapters return to or allude to Olive, this novel reads at times like a series of catch-up vignettes. Though often funny, with a couple of brilliantly off-taking set pieces, it feels like an even more melancholy version of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon Tales. One by one, various townsfolk have their moment in the limelight, their entire lives fleetingly, unflatteringly framed.

Mid-way through a book that spans a decade and more, Strout returns, for instance, to the Burgess Brothers, Jim and Bob, who featured in an earlier novel, showing how things have turned out since then. Elsewhere, other familiar faces reappear, as if Strout is keen to keep in touch with them and their kin. To that extent, Olive, Again is like a Christmas card list, complete with the growing number of deletions as time winnows the field.

Strout is unashamedly a small-town chronicler. The biggest row Olive has with Jack is when he, a former Harvard lecturer, accuses her of being parochial. She retaliates by calling him a snob. Both charges are fair. Yet, while their author revels in so-called parochialism, finding in Crosby a blueprint of the universal, Strout is anything but snobbish or narrow-minded. These chapters are filled with people from across the spectrum: Trump-voters, Vassar girls, pretentious middle-classes and the children of Somali refugees. What connects them all is the never-ending attempt to make sense of life, and themselves. After an unpleasant encounter with a woman from his past, Jack reflects: “What frightened him was how much of his life he had lived without knowing who he was or what he was doing.”

Opening with Jack mourning his dead wife and estranged lesbian daughter, Olive, Again is a series of cameos, taken from various angles, that depicts the essential aloneness of us all. The point is made well, Strout exceptionally good at using workaday detail to illuminate peoples’ deepest fears. Though her presence always enlivens the page, there are moments when Olive’s appearance in other folks’ lives feels contrived, in order to make a point – as when she visits a former student, undergoing chemotherapy, one of the few undaunted by her cruel situation.

Later she intrudes on another pupil in a cafe, a once ordinary girl who went on to become Poet Laureate of America. This seemingly friendly encounter has a sting in the tail, forcing Olive to consider her motives in reconnecting with someone she had never rated. Elsewhere, in a blackly comic episode, a dominatrix recalls Mrs Kitteridge’s helpful advice to her class: “If you just look at yourself and listen to yourself, you know exactly who you are.”

Strout is Anne Tyler’s direct descendant: smart, sensitive, reaching to the complicated, aching heart of things. Occasionally sentimental, yet never cloyingly so, she writes with such charm it is easy to gulp her down greedily. Yet there are startling moments of lyricism, when the outside world, with its sunsets, or “horrifying gorgeousness”, intrudes. Of darkening afternoons in February, one character reflects, “You could see how at the end of each day the world seemed cracked open and the extra light made its way across the stark trees, and promised. It promised, that light, and what a thing that was.”

These sudden changes of perspective act as a reminder of what lies all around, hugely important yet cast into the shade by human egotism and activity. You might say, though, that this image of dawning light at the bleakest time of year describes Strout’s fiction too. Even though it is suffused with loss and sorrow, it is intensely alive and hopeful, filled with moments of joy and expectation.