“Olive, Again” by Elizabeth Strout; Random House (289 pages, $27)
“Oh Christ,” says a man named Tom Coombs, looking out the window to see a car pulling into his driveway. “It’s that old bag, Olive Kitteredge. What in hell is she doing here?”
Tom’s got it all wrong. For Elizabeth Strout’s readers, the reappearance of Olive in a second volume of stories about the residents of Crosby, Maine, is almost too good to be true. This new collection of 13 stories finds Olive right where the first left off, after the death of her husband, Henry. While she is still extremely prickly and judgmental, her early 70s turn out to be a time of unexpected change, and we follow her well into her 80s. This is the land of the old-old, marked by indignities ranging from assisted living centers to what Olive will call poopie panties. It is a journey rarely taken in fiction, and is involving and moving.
As in the first book, Olive is not at the center of every story. In some, she is on the fringes, and in a couple she never appears. The first, “Arrested,” features widower and retired Harvard prof Jack Kennison, who was pursuing Olive romantically. But now Olive has given him the cold shoulder and Jack drives all the way to Portland to buy a gallon of whiskey rather than risk bumping into her at the grocery store. But a humiliating experience with the state police makes Jack feel lost and lonely, and three stories later, after Olive attends a “stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid” baby shower (you remember how she is), they are engaged.
In “Motherless Child,” Olive invites her semi-estranged son, Christopher, and his family for a visit to tell them about Jack. Though it doesn’t go well, you can feel her loosening up inside, just a touch, beginning to understand how she gets in the way of her own happiness.
She starts to become a little menschy, even. That Tom Coombs who was so annoyed to see Olive? His wife, Cindy, has cancer. Olive was her math teacher long ago, and after realizing how poorly Cindy’s doing when they cross paths in the grocery store, Olive pays an unannounced visit. In high school, Cindy had not especially liked her – few did – but they have an interaction that “Cindy for the rest her life, would never forget.” It has to do with the light in February.
On the way to that moment, Olive is able to comfort Cindy with a piece of very Olive-y wisdom, telling her there’s not one “person in this world who doesn’t have a bad memory or two to take with them through life.”
By the 10th story, Olive is 82 and is getting around with a cane, having caused a major car accident after confusing the gas pedal with the brake. Jack has died, and then she soils herself in her sleep. Her fears about old age — strangers coming into her house care for her (a Somali woman and a Trump supporter), moving to assisted living, wearing “those awful diapers for old people” — come true. And something worse than all of this:
“Loneliness. Oh the loneliness! ... She had not known such a feeling in her entire life.”
Despite Olive’s continuing social awkwardness and brusqueness, the last story is called “Friend.” The friend Olive gets is a returning character from one of Strout’s early novels, and the relationship she and Olive form is dear. Strout’s development of Olive’s character in this period of her life, her losses and her small compensatory moments, feels fresh. I have not read about these experiences before, or at least not with so much personality and feeling.
Along with the diapers and the humiliation, life swells behind Olive “like a sardine fishing net, all sorts of useless seaweed and broken bits of shells and the tiny, shining fish... the billion streaks of emotion she had as she’d looked at sunrises, sunsets, the different hands of waitresses who had placed before her cups of coffee.” Like so much else in the saga of Olive Kitteredge’s later years, this seems just right.
Final note — if you haven’t seen the HBO miniseries of the first book with Frances McDormand — you must. She will play the role in your head just the way Paul Newman became Richard Russo’s Sully.