“Olive, Again”

By Elizabeth Strout

Random House, New York, 2019

304 pages, hardcover, $27

The dust jacket on Elizabeth Strout’s newest book, “Olive, Again,” subtitles it “A Novel.” But really “Olive, Again,” like its precursor, “Olive Kitteridge,” is not one continuous narrative, but a collection of interlinked stories in which Olive Kitteridge is the main or a significant character.

Olive is a former junior high math teacher in the town of Crosby, Maine, which seems to be situated in some fictional territory between Harpswell and Bath. Her cranky bluntness puts most people off and endears her to others. The stories move in more or less chronological order over the last decade or so of her life, after the death of her first husband, Henry. In the first story, “Arrested,” Olive meets and spars with Jack Kennison, a blustery retired Harvard professor who will become her second husband. In the last story, “Friend,” Olive years later succumbs to living in an old folks’ home where, as usual, she has trouble getting along with almost everybody.

Olive’s attitude toward most social situations involves a kind of ironic disgust. In “Labor,” she sits mostly by herself at a baby shower. Then her pragmatically compassionate side emerges when she ends up helping a much younger woman give birth to a baby in the back seat of a car. In “Motherless Child,” we get a look at the distance between her and her son, Christopher, who is a podiatrist in New York City. The distance is not just geographic.

The two main themes in these stories are old age and the murky yet persistent reality of social class divisions. Olive’s struggle with growing old is everybody’s eventual struggle — illnesses, infirmities, the loss of loved ones, indignities galore, which Olive meets with belligerence and terse, wry humor. Only readers who are in or approaching this struggle themselves are likely to fully grasp it. This is no book for young men, or women.

Similarly, much of the book’s sense of social class divisions is apt to be lost on people who did not grow up on the coast of Maine in the 1940s, ’50s or ’60s. Practically every story shines light on frictions between people from middle class coastal Maine (deftly depicted decades ago by Ruth Moore) and people from points south. Everyone in the book who grew up in Crosby — or in Shirley Falls, an hour’s drive away — lives in a kind of social no-man’s-land that is exposed when people from away show up. Olive’s response is obtuseness: She is dead set, no matter who you think you are, that she is who she is, take it or leave it. Jack, the equally obtuse retired Harvard professor, in his old age falls in love with Olive in part because of her aggressive insistence on her own personal ground.

But Crosby’s and Shirley Falls’ later generations are definitely not describable, like Olive, as laconic Maine Yankees. Her son, Christopher is a classic young professional. So are Jim and Bob Burgess (in “Exiles”) who both became big-time lawyers in New York. Their sister, Susan, became an optometrist and settled back in Shirley Falls, where they all remember, uneasily, growing up poor. Jim’s wife, Helen, a well-to-do New Yorker, finds nothing attractive about Crosby or its people (“’she’s just so rich,’” Bob’s wife, the UU pastor, observes). Jack and Olive are well aware of the social distance between them: “’I’m a peasant and Jack is not,’” Olive says at one point. “’It’s a class thing.’” On the other end of these divisions, some of the Mainers resent the recently gathered Somali community in Shirley Falls.

If you’re a reader with a sense of humor and class frictions, this is well within your grasp. But if you grew up here in the decades around World War II, it’s a whole other kind of grasp. The distances between non-wealthy Mainers (virtually everybody) and the “summer people” who treated them as servants were enormous and sometimes humiliating, with increasing intensity from pharmacist and junior high math teacher on down the social ladder. (Sanford Phippen’s 1996 novel “Kitchen Boy” gives one of the clearest good-humored pictures of this.) A little-discussed fact of life here is the moral and social impact of this humiliation. The phrase “from away” is mostly a punch line now, but in the 1950s and ’60s, it was metonymic code for deep cultural scarring. Pervasive, subtle feelings of inferiority, uncertainty, resignation, anger, pride and twinkling irony went with it. Olive’s irascibility is a visible manifestation of that scar. I’ve known several Olives, and they all lived in Maine.

“Olive, Again” is in a way an exploration of how the scar looks in the aftermath of the huge demographic assimilation that occurred in Maine primarily in the 1970s and ’80s. It fostered possibilities for social ascendance by people like Christopher and the Burgesses. And Andrea L’Rieux, the Franco-American native of Crosby who in “The Poet” has gone on to become U.S. poet laureate, partly on the strength of her distant but acid sensitivity to the detached loneliness of people like Olive. But the divide remains. The Somalis of Shirley Falls are, in a way, a new dimension of old frictions.

The stories in “Olive, Again” are exquisitely well-written, with the stylistic clarity of Hemingway and Flannery O’Connor, subject matter in a vein with Richard Russo and Lily King, and scenic vividness in a league with Stephen King — for audiences of a certain age and literary disposition. Elizabeth Strout  was born in Portland, attended Bates College, married a former Maine gubernatorial candidate, and now lives in New York City and Brunswick. “Olive Kitteridge” won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2009.

Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine connections the first and third Thursdays of each month. Dana Wilde is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Contact him at [email protected].

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