Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer-prize winning Olive Kitteridge (2008) is the novel I recommend to friends who don’t read much. Talk about bang for your buck. Strout packs more character and life into 337 pages than you’d expect to find in a novel twice that length and combines classic storytelling with elegant formal innovation. Each chapter works individually as a short story, yet they are all harnessed together by the deceptively simple title. By announcing that the novel is about Olive Kitteridge, Strout frees herself to depict many other inhabitants of the small coastal town of Crosby, Maine. Sometimes, a chapter’s protagonist only interacts briefly with Olive, but this piecemeal portrait is deepened by the variety of angles from which Strout approaches her subject.
These days, when I suggest Olive Kitteridge, I’m asked: ‘What about her others?’ That usually means the Man Booker longlisted My Name Is Lucy Barton (2016), and its sort-of sequel, Anything is Possible (2017), which works like Olive Kitteridge — nine stories linked by place and character. My instinct is to warn people off these two, or at least to proceed with caution. Not only are they weaker than Olive Kitteridge, they also expose a mechanism that Strout arguably overuses.
Most of the time, her fictional gaze is commendably trained on the mundane. Here is a typical example from Strout’s new novel, Olive, Again. An aging widower called Jack Kennison muses on the difficult relationship he had with his wife Betsy, and discovers some gold:
“All his life Jack had been an undershorts man. Never for him those tighty-whities, but in Crosby, Maine, you couldn’t buy any undershorts. This had amazed him. And Betsy had gone to Freeport for him, and bought his undershorts there.
This is how Strout’s narratives proceed — puttering along quietly, like life — and then, also like life, Something Happens. A stroke. A suicide. Domestic abuse. A messy birth. (See David Szalay’s neat novella Turbulence for a concentrated exploration of this patterning.)
Wholesome authenticity punctuated by thrilling event: it’s a satisfying formula for the first-time reader. There you are, shaking out your branflakes, feeling virtuous, then wahey! — the free gift tumbles out.
In Olive Kitteridge, the ratio felt perfectly judged. In Lucy Barton and Anything is Possible, there are free gifts in every bowl, and you start to chafe against the subtle bribery used to keep you reading. Olive, Again sadly suffers from the same problem. Another disappointment is that this second Olive book is rather plodding in its chronology. Olive Kitteridge darts about, with one chapter spanning decades, then the next a single afternoon.
Olive, Again begins where Olive Kitteridge left off — with the older Olive’s nascent love affair with Jack Kennison — and proceeds from there to the end. It feels less brave, less radical, and accordingly less rich. At the level of the sentence, there are some nice touches (a snowed-upon forsythia bush looks like scrambled eggs), but often we get offensively inoffensive blandness. ‘It rained mostly at night, and the nights were cold, and the days were not too cold, but they were not warm.’
That said: if you loved Olive Kitteridge, you’ll probably enjoy Olive, Again, just as you’d enjoy the Christmas special of a favourite TV show. Old friends keep cropping up, characters you’ll remember from Olive Kitteridge but also from Strout’s earlier work — The Burgess Boys and Amy & Isabelle. Her supreme talent is for swift yet subtle evocation of character. Virginia Woolf said of Charles Dickens that he ‘made his books blaze up, not by tightening the plot… but by throwing another handful of people on the fire’. Strout’s method is similar, only you should expect a gentle glow rather than a blaze.
Of the 13 chapters here — again, each also works as a short story — the worst and best are ones starring characters other than Olive. ‘The End of the Civil War Days’ is the low point, powered as it is by the forced revelation that an aging couple’s daughter is a dominatrix, whose work has involved her defecating on a client. The disclosure feels desperate, a firelighter tossed on to damp wood to get things going.
In contrast, there’s the lovely, unexpected ‘Cleaning’. Kayley is a teenager, earning money by cleaning houses; in one of them, she is surprised by ‘a strong sensual impulse’ and, thinking herself alone, starts to touch her breast. The elderly husband of her employer witnesses this, and the story develops from there: a small spark nurtured by Strout with great care and moral intelligence.
On the basis of Olive, Again, I’ll still be recommending Olive Kitteridge to new readers — with strengthened warnings about the demerits of the later work, which tries to wring extra juice from pulp that should have been put straight on the compost heap.