- - Thursday, December 12, 2019

Olive is back, slipping through the pages of Elizabeth Strout’s new novel “Olive, Again,” sometimes the center of a story, sometimes just passing through. Olive is the tall, awkward, plain-spoken woman, a retired teacher, now a widow, Miss Strout’s readers took to heart in her earlier novel “Olive Kitteridge.” 

“Olive, Again” is a lovely book. Its 13 lightly intertwined stories take place in the imaginary Maine towns of Crosby and Shirley Falls. Some of the characters are familiar from earlier novels, but seen in a different light; others are new. Olive is as feisty as ever, with little patience for pretension and posing. As she ages, she becomes more incisive, more tolerant of her fellow Crosbyans. Her favorite expression remains, “Oh Godfrey.”

Miss Strout’s story-telling gift is intact, and her combination of humor and subtlety in recounting ordinary lives is superb. Descriptions of the people and places have the same New England spirit as in earlier novels, but there is an underlying tenderness and melancholy to these new stories. The plots appear simple, but are rich in a panoply of human failings and triumphs, of weakness and resilience, of complex behavior, actions and reactions. They are funny and sad with bursts of beauty.


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The first story, “Arrested,” takes place shortly after the end of “Olive Kitteridge.” Jack Kennison is a 74-year-old widower with a big belly, a man “who looks back at life and marvels that it unfolded as it did, who feels unbearable regret for all the mistakes made.” To him, Olive “was a strange woman … she had an honesty — was it an honesty? — she had something about her.” He had kissed her; it was “like kissing a barnacle-covered whale.” 

Jack and Olive find each other in their mutual loneliness. They marry, linked physically as well as emotionally. In the first months of their marriage, “they had slept holding each other. Neither one of them had held another person in bed all night for years. … Olive would put her leg over both of his, she would put her head on his chest, and during the night they would shift, but always they were holding each other, and Jack thought of their large old bodies, shipwrecked, thrown up upon the shore — and how they held on for dear life.”



As the seasons progress from summer to winter and the years pass, Jack dies, Olive has a heart attack and eventually she is forced to move into the Maple Hill Apartments, a retirement community.

Most stories are about Olive. In “Labor,” her caustic comments and thoughts during a baby shower are interrupted when circumstances require her to deliver a guest’s baby, an event that surprises even her no-nonsense self. In “Light,” she visits Cindy, a young woman undergoing cancer treatment; they bond over the beauty of February light. After her move to the Maple Hill Apartments, in the story “Friend” she meets Isabelle, a character from Miss Strout’s first novel, “Amy and Isabelle.” The two old women laugh together as they are bound by the iniquities of old age.

In “Motherless Child,” Olive’s son, Christopher, and his family come to visit. The children refuse to talk to, or even look at, her. The visit is not a success. When Olive overhears her daughter-in-law yell at her grandson, she feels this was an opening “into the darkness of a relationship one saw by mistake, as if inside a dark barn, the door had been momentarily blown off and one saw things not meant to be seen.”

Olive is barely mentioned in “Exiles.” Brothers Jim and Bob were the central characters in Miss Strout’s “The Burgess Boys.” With their wives, Helen and Margaret, they are getting together in Crosby where Bob and Margaret live, after Jim and Helen drop off their grandson at camp. The encounter is a disaster; the women dislike one another; Bob yearns for New York (and his ex-wife) but Margaret hates the city. Jim, who has made a fortune as a lawyer in New York, would like to live in Crosby, but Helen cannot bear the small town. Helen’s drunken fall leads to an inner peace for all when honesty overcomes hostility.

After her heart attack, Olive felt “this gaping bright universe of loneliness that she faced. … She realized it was as though she had — all her life — four big wheels beneath her, without even knowing it, of course, and now they were, all four of them, wobbling and about to come off. She did not know who she was, or what would happen to her.”

Olive is a survivor, and on “a glorious autumn … [t]he world sparkled, and the yellows and reds, and orange and pale pinks, were just splendid … and every morning when she opened the door she was aware of the beauty of the world.” So, too, has Miss Strout opened a door for us onto the beauty of Crosby’s world. 

• Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer, critic and frequent contributor to The Washington Times.

• • •

OLIVE, AGAIN

By Elizabeth Strout

Random House, $27, 289 pages

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