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book review

In ‘Olive, Again,’ Elizabeth Strout’s beloved character gets better with age

Olive Kitteridge, one of the most indelible characters in literature, made even more famous and beloved by Frances McDormand’s remarkable performance in the HBO miniseries, is back in Elizabeth Strout’s “Olive, Again.”

“Olive Kitteridge” won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and became an enormous world-wide bestseller. In a prefatory letter to the sequel, Strout tells us that Olive “continues to surprise me, continues to enrage me, continues to sadden me, and continues to make me love her.” It is precisely the complicated mixture of emotions she inspires that makes Olive such an endlessly fascinating and irresistibly endearing heroine. “Olive, Again” is bleaker, sadder, more achingly beautiful than its predecessor, and a magnificent achievement on its own terms.

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Like “Olive Kitteridge,” “Olive, Again” is a novel in linked stories, some centering on Olive, some focusing on other residents of the coastal town of Crosby, Maine (in which Olive makes cameo appearances). This technique allows Olive to appear in the round through the eyes and experiences of a wide variety of characters — one calls her “that old bag” — even as we are given access to her inner life: her harsh judgments of other people, the yearnings and fears she hides from them and often from herself.

In “Olive, Again,” we follow Olive from her early seventies through her mid-eighties, from her romance with retired Harvard anthropology professor Jack Kennison through their marriage, his death, her heart attack, and her taking up residence in the Maple Tree Apartments, which a younger Olive had contemptuously referred to as “that place for old people.”

Along the way, Olive attends a baby shower and delivers a baby; negotiates a fraught relationship with her son, Christopher, and his growing family; comforts a former student struggling with cancer ; inspires a poem by another former student who’s become the Poet Laureate of the United States; gets her first pedicure; travels to Oslo; and develops a close friendship with another assisted living facility resident, Isabelle from Strout’s “Amy and Isabelle.”

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Olive is blunt, impatient, judgmental, irascible. She denigrates others as “stupid” and “foolish” , rolls her eyes , frequently exclaims “phooey to you!” We often share in her frustrations, as when she has to sit through an interminable gift-giving session at a baby shower. But if Olive can be brusque and condescending, she is also clear-sighted, fiercely intelligent, a person of integrity. Jack, whom she’d originally dismissed as “that horrible old rich flub-dub of a man,” helps her to see her own blind spots — he lovingly deems her a “reverse snob” and recognizes what others might see as meanness or coldness as the effects of her intense anxiety. She in turn calls him out on his offensive comments about people of color and his prejudices about gay people; it she who encourages a reconciliation with his lesbian daughter.

Over the course of the novel, we observe Olive becoming, as she puts it, “oh, just a tiny—tiny—bit better as a person.” More self-questioning, less ruthlessly judgmental, she is humbled, chastened, and changed by her second marriage to a man who both adores and challenges her, by insights gleaned via hard experience and startling moments of epiphany, by her body’s increasing enfeeblement. She who has always been so confident, so upright in her rectitude, begins to see and honor other’s vulnerability as she learns to acknowledge her own.

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“The essential loneliness of people” and “the choices they made to keep themselves from that gaping darkness” permeate the collection’s stories. A quiet little town’s picturesque facade hides a multitude of secrets and sins: infidelity,, elder abuse, pedophilia and incest , domestic violence , alcoholism and addiction,. The “terrible desolation” of a bereaved daughter is juxtaposed with the horrified bewilderment of a father whose daughter has become a dominatrix. Losses — of love, marriage, children, of life via suicide — score the stories with anguish and unite their disparate characters.

Improbable and sustaining connections between the most unlikely of kindred spirits is one of Strout’s big themes here, and for the most part she does it beautifully. In “Light,” a shared reverence for the natural world’s beauty allows for a moment of profound solidarity between Olive and a librarian she once taught. In “Helped,” an elderly family lawyer’s kindness and empathy make a grieving woman feel “as though huge windows above her had been smashed … and now, here above her and around her, was the whole wide world right there, available to her once again”; her grateful response enables the lawyer to feel cleansed of the “taint” of his job.

But “Cleaning,” about an eighth-grade girl who touches her breasts for a voyeuristic old man (the husband of her teacher/employer) and is rewarded with envelopes stuffed with cash, is a rare misfire; it feels ostentatiously provocative and psychologically implausible.

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Strout evokes the “gaping bright universe of loneliness” and the terror of aging and dying so well that reading “Olive, Again” is at times a viscerally painful, even frightening experience. But she also gives us moments of startling poetic beauty and reminds us of the sustenance all around us. As an elderly Olive forges relationships with her two caregivers – one a middle-aged Trump supporter who’s had a very tough life, the other a luminous young Somali woman — she muses on “the way people can love those they barely know, and how abiding that love can be.”

The Other is a perplexing problem: infuriating, alien, limited; but also necessary, restorative, life-giving — both the opposition and the confirmation of oneself. In “Olive, Again,” we see Olive acquiring a view of herself, and coming to recognize as valuable the other people who grant that vision. In the process, she shares in the alchemy that she continues to perform for us and elicits our unexpected, abiding love.

OLIVE, AGAIN

By Elizabeth Strout

Penguin, 304 pp., $27


Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’’