In the final pages we leave Olive, in her 70s and after the death of her husband Henry, on the cusp of a fresh romance with a retired professor, Jack Kennison. Her estranged son Christopher has married for a second time and is living in New York. Did Strout ever think she would see Olive again?
“Never, never, never,” Strout says emphatically, on the phone from her London hotel room.
But nobody puts Olive in a corner. More than 10 years after she barrelled her way into readers’ hearts, she’s back in a sequel whose title is as direct as its protagonist, Olive, Again.
“I was in a cafe and I think I was checking my email or something and all of a sudden, boom, I just saw her so clearly as she nosed her car into the marina parking lot,” Strout says.
“And then I saw her get out, at the time she had a cane, and I realised, wow she is so vivid and I just had to get it down. And then I ended up writing that story pretty much throughout that weekend.”
Olive’s reputation precedes her in Olive, Again, which repeats the structure of its predecessor with 13 interconnected stories also set in Crosby, Maine. We’re avoiding Olive before we’ve even encountered her. Her future second husband, Jack Kennison, has driven an hour out of town in order to mitigate the possibility of bumping into Olive at the local grocery store. Their fledgling romance, which closed the earlier novel, has disintegrated, but he misses her, “Tall, big; God, she was a strange woman.”
Olive’s “full frontal assault” – as Strout terms it – comes in the brilliant second story, Labor. Olive is in quite the mood at a baby shower, and her temper is tested as the mother-to-be slowly unwraps each of her presents before passing them around.
Strout writes: “She could not imagine how long it would take this child to unwrap every goddamed gift on the table and put the ribbons so carefully on the goddamned paper plate, and then everyone had to wait – wait – while every gift was passed around. She thought she had never heard of such foolishness in her life.”
Olive might not be good company before a baby, but she’s worth her weight when a baby is on its way. When a pregnant guest enters labour but is concerned she’s going to ruin the party, it’s Olive who seizes control of the situation. She puts the labouring mother into the back seat of her car, cuts off her pants with shears, and delivers the baby.
Age has softened Olive, and ageing is a theme that links the stories. It’s two years since Olive’s husband’s death and she has not seen her son Christopher for three years. She is more self reflective, edging towards a perspective of herself previously reserved for readers, as well as a desire to understand others more.
“I do think that she has grown and I think that she has become more self reflective to the extent that she can be. I think that she has tried to try to understand herself a little bit and to see her impact on people. I think that’s different about her in this book,” Strout says.
When Christopher and his wife Ann come to visit in the moving story Motherless, Olive knits a scarf for one of her grandchildren. When it’s left behind, Olive throws it into the garbage bin and has a heartbreaking realisation. Strout writes: “It came to her then with a horrible whoosh of the crescendo of truth: She had failed on a colossal level. She must have been failing for years and not realised it. She did not have a family as other people did … She could not understand what it was about her, but it was about her that had caused this to happen.”
Strout says Olive still felt familiar to her when she started to write Olive, Again, yet she too was surprised by her new displays of self-awareness and empathy. She had been apprehensive about writing a sequel, concerned she wouldn’t be able to recapture Olive’s Oliveness.
“I was afraid. I just understood that this was very risky because Olive Kitteridge was popular as a book and a character and I wasn’t sure if she still would have the same pop to her. But when I was working on her, I realised that she did, that she was still Olive and I did think she had the pop,” Strout says.
“I should say as long as I [was] working on her, it was when I looked up from the table that I thought to myself, ‘I hope this is going to be OK.'”
It was Olive Kitteridge, Strout’s third novel, which had catapulted her to literary fame when she was 53, after years of writing without much success, between a variety of day jobs. The rejection letters had piled up, and Strout was 45 when her debut novel, Amy and Isabelle, was published in 1999 and became a bestseller.
She had been drawn to writing from a young age, growing up in a small town in Maine and experiencing a childhood that she describes as isolated and claustrophobic. Strout now lives with her husband, James, between Manhattan and Maine, where they both still have family. And Maine is pivotal to Olive Kitteridge and Olive, Again. In her spare and astute prose, Strout shows the beauty, anger, fear and pain that shapes what are too often dismissed as small lives in a small town.
“For many years, I just didn’t really see Maine because I was so much a part of it. And now I’ve lived in New York for so many years, more than half my life really, that I can turn around and see it differently. I can see absolute beauty and I can see the people differently,” Strout says.
“I understand that Olive has to come from Maine, that it’s a landscape and an area and a region that produces people like Olive. She couldn’t really come from someplace else I think. She has to be from Maine and it’s only because I know Maine so well that I know that.”
Strout has a trip to Maine planned in a few weeks, after her book tour. She’s working on a new novel but won’t say much more than that. There’s no hint yet whether Olive, Again will be adapted for the screen. But is Strout done with Olive?
“Well, I mean, I think so. I absolutely think so, but I thought so before. So I’m just a little hesitant about saying absolutely.”
Maybe the question should be, is Olive done with her? As we know, it can be hard to refuse Olive.
Olive, Again is published by Viking at $29.99
Melanie Kembrey is Spectrum Deputy Editor at the Sydney Morning Herald