Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

Review by David Starkey

Elizabeth Strout is a fine writer, and novels such as The Burgess Boys and My Name Is Lucy Barton are very good. Still, Olive Kitteridge, her 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of interrelated stories, has an immediacy and fierceness that one finds in only the very greatest books. Sequels nearly always disappoint, and it cannot be said that Olive, Again has quite the range and power of its predecessor. Nevertheless, the book does an excellent job of revivifying the ill-tempered, truth-telling Olive and her neighbors in and around fictional Crosby, Maine.

Like Olive Kitteridge, the new book is a collection of stories with Olive appearing at least briefly in all of them, although, once again, she is only the protagonist in about half the chapters. But what a protagonist she is, as curmudgeonly as ever, although blessed with moments of insight and kindness. Characters in their seventies and eighties often appear foolish in fiction, but Strout has worked hard to make Olive and her contemporaries feel, if not sympathetic and heroic, then at least alert and real.

Several stories take place in nearby Shirley Falls, which resembles Lewiston, Maine. Here, the mostly white characters interact with Somalis, to their sometimes mutual confusion. In “Exiles,” the Burgess brothers make a reappearance, and the final two stories see Olive moving into assisted living, where she becomes friends with Isabelle Daignault, one of the protagonists of Strout’s first novel, Amy and Isabelle. This weaving together of the characters in the author’s fictional universe could have been precious, but Strout is as averse to sentimentality as Olive. 

Near the end of the book, Strout writes of her heroine: “It was herself, she realized, that did not please her. She moved slightly in her chair. But it was too late to be thinking about that—.” It’s not quite too late, though, for Olive “had been lucky, she supposed. She had been loved by two men, and that had been a lucky thing; without luck, why would they have loved her? But they had.” We readers are lucky, too, to have had the unforgettable Olive in our lives.