In “Olive Kitteridge,” the novel’s hero, opinionated and cutting, often treated her husband, Henry, like a rain-soaked lobster shack doormat before his death; her anger, we find out, had a lot to do with her anguish and repressed love for an old, dearly departed flame, Jim O’Casey. In “Olive, Again,” we see a new side of Olive. Yes, Henry, an amiable pharmacist, was wide-eyed and clueless, but he was as dependably kindhearted as Fred Rogers. Why did Olive rebuff his neediness? “What crime had he been committing,” she wonders, “except to ask for her love?” Jack, too, can’t shake his own sorrow over the death of his spouse, Betsy. His feelings are complicated by bitter memories of her dalliance with a college friend (never mind that Jack was carrying on his own affair on the side).
In other words, Olive and Jack are entitled to a fresh start. One roots for them, then, to set aside their differences and get along. Ever empathic and intuitive, Strout delves into their begrudging romance: “During the night they would shift, but always they were holding each other, and Jack thought of their large old bodies, shipwrecked, thrown up upon the shore — and how they held on for dear life! He would never have imagined it. The Olive-ness of her, the neediness of himself.”
Jack isn’t the only man in Olive’s life who loves her — and who must put up with her. Her son, Christopher, who lives in New York, pays a visit to Olive with his family. Years earlier, his wife, Ann, had tried to call Olive “Mom,” and now she greets her mother-in-law with a perfunctory “Hello, Olive.” Relations between them have become as warm as Penobscot Bay in February. It’s sad, certainly, but Strout knows how to find the comic in the tragic. When Ann feeds her baby, old-fashioned Olive is aghast, even “a tiny bit ill” when confronted with “a breast — just sticking out in plain view, right there in the kitchen, the nipple large and dark.” There’s plenty more humor in other stories: In an early one, the monotony of a baby shower is broken up when Olive frantically delivers a baby in the back of her car (signaling her own rebirth, of sorts), and in another, she endures a meal at a trendy new spot called Gasoline (one imagines Olive, a green thumb, being fond of a no-fuss Olive Garden).