How exciting that Olive Kitteridge of the Pulitzer Prize winning book by the same name has returned. Olive, the retired irascible junior high math teacher in the small town of Cosby, Maine, can hardly help running into people she knows, each with a history and a struggle. She frequently understands what her neighbors should do while questioning her own feelings and actions.
Elizabeth Strout takes the common connections Olive makes in life and moves them on to the heart of the other character’s problem. For instance, Olive finds an unsteady Cindy Coombs looking for milk, a loaf of bread, and two cans of soup in the supermarket. Sensing the need of her former student, Olive helps her get the groceries to the car and begins a series of visits where she listens to Cindy deal with her cancer diagnosis.
The approach to death comes up in this chapter, foreshadowing a theme for others to come. Cindy who knows death is a possibility is comforted by Olive’s words “. . . if you do die, the truth is – we’re all just a few steps behind you. Twenty minutes behind you, and that’s the truth.”
Olive’s personal relationships come into question as she remarries, tries to navigate relationships with a grown son and stepdaughter, and faces growing old. Making her acquaintance again felt like revisiting an old friend with a bur-like exterior covering a mellow inside.
Often, the question with a sequel is whether it makes sense without the first book. Because of her unique writing style in both books of a dozen or so “linked tales” with Olive making appearances in each with an overall strand running through that ties them together, each can be read as a standalone. Still, if you asked me if I would read them both in order, I would answer with Olive’s word, “Ay-yuh.”