Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

“There is a bland vacation quality to most Maine literature,” Elizabeth Hardwick wrote in 1971. Back then, such a pronouncement might have lead to a bar fight in Portland, but today the critic would just be laughed out of the joint. Elizabeth Strout is one reason why; Olive Kitteridge, her novel about a decidedly unbland heroine battling depression, loss, jealousy, and familial psychodrama in the fictional town of Crosby, Maine, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009. (The HBO series based on the book and starring Frances McDormand won eight Emmys.)

Olive, Again is a collection of interconnected short stories much like its predecessor—that is, reliably moving in parts. There is still the depression, the loss, the jealousy, and the psychodrama that made the first book so great, but the poet Randall Jarrell once said that the definition of a novel “is a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it,” and thus, the book is also uneven, much like the jagged coast of Maine, where its stories are set.

The sequel picks up where the first Kitteridge book leaves off. The characters in intertwining stories are at the end of some kind of line, on their last car and last house and last marriage, assessing the damage done to their lives. They carry around “large old bodies, shipwrecked, thrown up upon the shore,” and endure the humiliation of old age—when you can no longer bend forward to clip your own toenails, and you can no longer keep your excrement to yourself. New words like “stent” enter the vocabulary.

Strout’s characters are on their last car and last house and last marriage, assessing the damage done to their lives.

But through the ravages of time, Olive, the protagonist of both novels, remains the same. She is still the kind of woman who will shamelessly ask the pregnant host of a baby shower to bring her a plate of food, while being considerate enough to observe that the very pregnant guest is going into labor—even before the woman herself fully realizes what is happening. She is self-centered, empathetic, no-nonsense, a closeted romantic. It is these contradictions that make Olive wholly human.

Her Son, the Doctor

The most memorable moments come when Olive shares the stage with her son, Chris, the podiatrist living in New York, in a chapter that reads like an argument against the nuclear family. New York is only 450 miles away from Maine, but the psychic distance remains vast, and so the home visits are seldom and lurching.

One day the prodigal son returns, with his wife and her two children (from two separate partners, as Olive never forgets to remind us), as well as his own biological son, little Henry, named after Chris’s dead father (Olive’s first husband). They will stay three nights, and already we are not sure if the lot will make it through with their fragile bonds intact.

Returning readers will know that in the previous Kitteridge book, Chris fought with Olive, calling her out for the “extreme capriciousness” he endured from her over the years. And yet some small part of him seems also to be attuned to the essential goodness that Olive possesses, as if he knows that buried deep below the sedimentary layers of calloused tissue, there is something in Olive that resembles love for him. You can almost imagine Chris telling his shrink that his mother is the most hateful and most generous person he knows.

That selfsame son is an adult now, but something about familial environments tends to reduce us to our most elemental states, and on this trip Chris is back to being a little boy again—screaming, hurt, a wounded animal trying to whip up affection from a mother who is not capable of showing it. After the predictable catastrophe, Olive wonders about other families, “Surely they had a better time than what had just happened here.” But of course we all think this.

Stay That Way

The rest of the book is full of children who remain children, and parents who just remain. The children move away, to New York, to Iowa, but they cannot quite escape their parents’ thrall. A woman who has come to collect her father’s remains asks her family’s lawyer, “But did he ever say that to you? That he was proud of me?” They are people not quite free—from the provincialism, from the famous Maine weather, from their childhoods, from convention, from themselves.

Some of the stories have the feel of a series recap: “Previously, on Olive Kitteridge … ” They are like second helpings of the pie you are not sure you want more of but you eat anyway. Others offer backstories that extinguish the mystery that made the characters so indelible in the first book. Why did the Larkin boy stab a woman 29 times and end up in jail? Because, we learn, it is likely that his mother molested him as a child. Why did his mother molest him as a child? Because, we learn, her husband abused her. And so on. A dying woman says of her mother, “She was difficult, Olive. But then, she had a difficult life.” The excuses fall flat. The masterful scenes are the quieter ones, when the characters struggle with complicated emotions: the burden of being with the kindest man in the world, or that of being repelled by those you love.

The book is full of children who remain children, and parents who just remain.

In other stories, the new world encroaches. Drug addicts torch a house (though it’s still meth, not opioids). Somali refugees are now living in the “white, white state,” of Maine. There are mentions of the “current president.” A daughter comes out to her parents as a dominatrix. These make up the weakest notes in the book, and read as somewhat tone-deaf. Take, for example, when Jack—Olive’s second husband, an old white man—is driving his convertible and gets stopped by the cops. There is no drama in these pages, because we know he will get off unharmed.

Asians appear three times in the book. In one instance, Olive flies to see the fjords and sits next to a man and his Asian girlfriend, who Olive guesses is “probably twenty years younger, but how could you tell with Asians.”

What are these encounters like these with people of color meant to tell us about Olive? Is she outing herself as an incurious person, prone to reducing people and things to their supposed essence, or a careless narrator of her own life? Are these details there to make a broader point? We assume yes, as it would be unimaginable that an intelligent novelist in 2019 would write on race unthinkingly—especially one whose understanding of the complexities alive in a single human have made her books so beloved.

Nearing the end of her life and the end of the book, we meet Olive, again, now “bereft,” “bewildered,” and “tired,” sitting in a wingback chair of a retirement community.

It is aching to see a character whose singular trait has been independence be so diminished. Olive has defined herself in opposition to her first husband, a pushover, then her second, a snob. With them gone, she isn’t quite sure who she is. But this does not stop her from living, and in her unwavering devotion to this flawed and lovely world, Olive remains compelling, years on.

May Jeong is an investigative reporter living in New York City