Elizabeth Strout’s seventh novel, a sequel to the 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning “Olive Kitteridge,” finds her heroine somewhat unchanged: Olive, a retired math teacher in Crosby, Maine, is caustic, outspoken, fiercely uncomfortable with emotion, and equally capable of ferocious compassion for practical strangers. Her second marriage, to widower Jack Kennison, confounds her as much as it pleases her, and it grants her access to feelings of generous love for her late first husband, Henry, that she was reluctant to show during Henry’s lifetime.
For Strout fans, it is thrilling enough to be back in Olive’s presence — to hear her utter “Godfrey,” to see her protective manner with former students, to watch her pronounce that paintings are “crap” to a woman who just bought one — but this thrill is compounded by the inclusion of Strout characters from earlier novels.
Jim, Bob, and Susan Burgess, the siblings from 2013’s “The Burgess Boys,” appear for a brief, sad reunion in which the brothers’ wives, Helen and Margaret, struggle to enjoy each other’s company — a struggle Helen tries to finesse by drinking wine, which leads her to tumble down the stairs and break several bones. In the wake of this accident, Margaret confesses to her husband that “I couldn’t stand [Helen] and she knew it, Bob. And I feel terrible.”
Later, in her assisted living facility, Olive befriends Isabelle, the furious, secretive mother of Strout’s 1999 novel “Amy and Isabelle.” Decades after an incident in which she cuts off her daughter’s hair, Isabelle describes her regret and shame to Olive — “oh, the memory haunts me.”
Margaret, Isabelle and Olive are each stunned by their own capacity for unkindness, and the novel is, in part, a series of lamentations, which gives it a sorrowful tone — as do the occasional allusions to suicide, which are shut away almost as swiftly as they arise.
Olive is particularly reflective about her stint as a wife and a mother, and three of the strongest chapters here — “Motherless Child,” “Heart” and “Friend” — force her to confront her imperfections in these roles. In “Motherless Child,” after a mostly joyless visit from her son Christopher and his family, Olive thinks that “She had failed on a colossal level.”
In “Heart,” after Olive suffers a heart attack, Christopher visits so frequently that her doctor remarks, “You must have been a very good mother,” which leaves Olive “baffled” and doubtful.
Strout’s work is strongly concerned with caretaking. In “Heart,” Betty and Halima, two women who care for Olive in her home after her heart attack, develop filial connections to their ward. In assisted living, Olive and Isabelle agree to care for each other. In occasional, spontaneous bursts, Olive cares for others, such as Cindy, a former student, with more grace than she often showed her husband and son.
Olive, talking to Betty, considers “the way people can love those they barely know, and how abiding that love can be, and also how deep that love can be.” Strout remains exceptionally gifted at plumbing those depths.
Jackie Thomas-Kennedy’s writing has appeared in Electric Literature, LennyLetter, Narrative, The Millions, Harvard Review, and elsewhere. She held a 2014-2016 Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University.
By: Elizabeth Strout.
Publisher: Random House, 289 pages, $27.