In the fictional world Elizabeth Strout has created in the small towns of coastal Maine, characters are reassembling like old friends at a funeral. The redoubtable Olive Kitteridge is there, of course, first introduced to the world in 2008 in the novel that bears her name. Jim and Bob Burgess, from The Burgess Boys (2013), put in an appearance too, and we even learn what became of Isabelle and Amy, the mother and daughter whose estrangement in Strout’s first novel seemed irremediable. These people are growing old now – Olive is in her eighties – and for her and other characters whom Strout’s readers have come to know, the time left is short. Things haven’t much changed. Even if some of the more fraught relationships, including Olive’s with her own son, have mellowed slightly, loneliness, marital unhappiness, parental disappointment and small-town humiliation are as acute as ever. And now they are seasoned with the indignities of old age.
In Amy and Isabelle (1998), Strout trained her gaze on the frictions of family and local communities. The mortifications that she depicted might seem small in scale, like a daughter pointing out that her mother doesn’t know how to pronounce ‘Yeats’ properly, but they are nonetheless devastating. The relationship between Isabelle and Amy is emotionally abusive on both sides and it leads to a situation where a graver abuse – growing sexual intimacy between a high-school teacher and a pupil – seems actually to provide a possibility of escape. There is more relationship misery, another problem child and more provincial claustrophobia in Abide with Me (2006), in which a widowed Congregationalist minister struggles to raise two small girls in the face of well-intentioned but deeply hurtful psychological advice. In The Burgess Boys, Strout adds a different challenge to the mix when someone throws a pig’s head into the local mosque during Ramadan.
Although it was Olive Kitteridge that won Strout a Pulitzer Prize, My Name is Lucy Barton (2016) is a more subtle and complex achievement. The only one of her novels to be narrated in the first person, the book is an account by a writer from Amgash, Illinois (a variation on Strout’s usual Maine settings), of a period spent in hospital in New York during which her mother comes to visit her. In its follow up, Anything Is Possible (2017), in which Lucy returns to Amgash, Strout revisits the well-trodden territory of small-town dysfunction related in the third person.
This is also the terrain of Olive, Again. It is in some ways a stand-alone novel, though those who have read Olive Kitteridge will know that Olive is a retired seventh-grade maths teacher, widow of the long-suffering Henry, mother of the damaged Christopher, large and plain-speaking, not particularly fond of children and not one to suffer fools gladly. The new book follows her into late old age, a second marriage, a heart attack and the loss of independence. Like its immediate predecessor, Olive, Again is structured as a set of interlinked short stories. Olive claims the limelight in some; elsewhere, she is a tangential figure in other people’s lives.
The usual themes are here: the damage done by parents to children (and vice versa), marital unhappiness, family tensions, loneliness, grief and loss. In the chapter entitled ‘The Poet’, Olive sits down in a breakfast booth beside a former pupil who has gone on to become US poet laureate. Olive falls into the trap of telling her just how miserable she feels, partly because she senses the woman’s own misery. Predictably, the woman publishes a poem exposing Olive’s confidences: ‘Who taught me math thirty-four years ago/terrified me and is now terrified herself/sat before me at the breakfast counter/white whiskered/told me I had always been lonely/no idea she was speaking of herself’. The poem is cruel in its honesty – particularly that ‘white whiskered’ – and Strout’s fiction has a similarly unforgiving candour.
Olive is entering the endgame in this novel: she is alone, increasingly frail, no longer able to cut her own toenails, prone to soiling herself. Now she must face a kind of reckoning – ‘She had failed on a colossal scale. She must have been failing for years and not realized it. She did not have a family as other people did’ – and accept that death is coming soon. Long a chronicler of life’s painfulness, Strout moves into even darker territory here. There are compensations – including an unlikely friendship – but uncertainty surrounds even these. Across her novels, Strout has created a living community whose members know sorrows large and small. They must find satisfaction where they can: children who, at least, are not on drugs; remaining strength; a wife whose face brightens when her husband enters the house, who puts down her book and says ‘Hi there’ to him. Such details give Olive, Again considerable poignancy, at which its eponymous character would, in all likelihood, mightily scoff.