One of life’s pleasures is receiving a gift you never expected and finding that it satisfies a craving you didn’t know you had. Such is the case of Elizabeth Strout’s forthcoming “Olive, Again,” in which the author, a Maine native and part-time Brunswick resident, revisits the title character for her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Olive Kitteridge.”

Set mostly in the fictional midcoast town of Crosby, Maine, the book will arrive at the perfect time, as the days shorten and cool but retain at least the memory of summer’s brilliance and heat. “Olive, Again” rewards reading at an unhurried pace, in a comfortable chair, rather than on a windy beach. If the subject matter tends toward the dark end of the spectrum, there are still flashes of comforting light.

By highlighting various Crosby residents beset by troubles, it grapples with day-to-day heartbreaks, offers occasional moments of solace and speaks to what it means to live in Maine year-round.

In a fall arts season that has brought major novels from local literary powerhouses Richard Russo and Stephen King, “Olive, Again” stands out because of its richly detailed coastal Maine setting, dry humor and generous heart.

With nine generations of ancestors behind her, Olive is a Mainer through-and- through: independent, stubborn, tender, gruff and sometimes oblivious. Those who have read “Olive Kitteridge” will encounter an older and perhaps wiser Olive, although exactly how she evolves is open to question, even to Olive herself. At least she becomes, as she says, “just a tiny – tiny – bit better” as a person. Above all, Olive endures.

As the book opens, Olive is nearing the end of her life. In her 70s, the former junior high math teacher remains capable of surprising herself and others. She says she is afraid of dying, but she’s able to display bravery in the face of mortality. All around her and the supporting characters are reminders – house fires, cancer, drug overdoses, suicides – that life is short and death not far away.

Olive muses, “It would come. ‘Yup, yup,’ she said.'”

The first chapter of “Olive, Again,” “Arrested,” focuses not on Mrs. Kitteridge but on Jack Kennison, the widowed Harvard professor who finds himself almost inexplicably attracted to the large, outspoken, prickly and somewhat mysterious Olive. (“I like you, Olive … I’m not sure why, really. But I do.”) Estranged from her podiatrist son, Olive misses her husband Henry, dead after having a stroke and lingering in a medical facility for a couple of years. She is, however, warily open to Jack’s interest in her.

Like “Olive Kitteridge,” “Olive, Again” is a novel in stories, not merely a collection that can be dipped into at random, but a series of tales that should be read in order. Strictly speaking, the new book could be read first or alone, but why would any reader pick that strategy if given a choice? The experience of “Olive, Again” is greatly enriched by the call-backs it makes to its predecessor.

Some chapters, such as “Labor,” in which Olive delivers a baby, and “Motherless Child,” in which she struggles to make sense of her own kinfolk, put Olive and her experiences front and center, giving her full rein to express her outspoken point of view and exhibit behavior running from the compassionate to the callous.

Other chapters, such as “Helped,” largely a conversation between an attorney and a distraught client, barely feature her at all, allowing her to slip in to offer some commentary and exit quickly.

Olive’s tempestuous relationships with her family continue to grieve her. “Kids are just a needle in your heart,” she says at one point, and Strout devotes a chapter to the uncomfortable visit made by her son Christopher and his family. It’s a counterpoint to the disastrous trip she made to New York in the earlier book, but this time Olive is able to admit some unpleasant truths about herself, as well as her extended family.

It may surprise some readers that Strout relies on characters from her books other than “Olive Kitteridge.” One chapter is devoted to Jim and Bob Burgess of “The Burgess Boys,” while one of the main characters of “Amy and Isabelle” plays an important role in the novel’s climax.

There is no mistaking the book’s setting as any place other than Maine. Strout never slathers on the New England references, but she gets the details right when describing what people eat, do and say, where they once lived and worked, how they travel through the landscape. It rings true that one character would have been called “Frenchie,” growing up and never having been offended by the nickname. That Olive is quick to defend the Somali woman who becomes her caregiver indicates a change not only on her part but in Maine society at large.

Much of “Olive, Again” is about aging, the minor indignities that grow into major catastrophes – bowel troubles, falls, strokes, heart problems. No matter their circumstances, Strout treats each character with honest respect, never stooping to the mawkish sentiment or the easy laugh. The novel is at its most heartbreaking when Olive and other characters let down their guard and admit their fears about the future and regrets about the past.

It’s a theme that appears again and again: that all of us are damaged and “stupid” from trying to understand ourselves and others. In “Pedicure,” Jack contemplates his first wife and a former lover and is bowled over by the extent of his failure to understand himself and those he loves.

Strout writes, “What frightened him was how much of his life he had lived without knowing who he was or what he was doing. It caused him to feel an inner trembling, and he could not find the words – for himself – to put it exactly even as he sensed it. But he sensed that he had lived his life in a way that he had not known.”

That brush with self-knowledge drives Olive, too. It’s part of what makes her so human, her confusion over what her life has truly meant.

“Olive, Again” marks a welcome return of an indelible character, one who speaks to a wide audience of devoted readers. The novel wrestles with loneliness, sickness and death, but it also embraces life, love and hope. Strout has delivered a compelling sequel for her signature character, a satisfyingly contemplative novel, perfect for the season.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]
Twitter: mlberry


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