The authors of the two 2019 novels I consider here delayed producing sequels to their critically-acclaimed and commercially successful novels an unusually long time. “Olive, Again” is Elizabeth Strout’s follow-up to her Pulitzer Prize-winning 2008 novel “Olive Kitteredge.” “The Big Sky” is Kate Atkinson’s fifth in her Jackson Brodie detective series that began with “Case Histories” (2007) and has been MIA since “Started Early, Took My Dog” (2011).
Both Strout and Atkinson published multiple unrelated novels in between. Because much of the background information is integrated into their new works, the books can stand alone. Still, for those who delight in the 2019 novels as well as for those who enjoyed the previous ones way back when, I highly recommend reading—or re-reading—the originals to get the full flavor of the characters.
These disparate novels and novelists—Strout is from Maine and Atkinson is British—also have in common that the earlier books were adapted for television. “Olive Kitteredge” became a four-part HBO series in 2014, and the BBC made Atkinson’s four Jackson Brodie detective novels into the six-episode “Case Histories” in 2011.
Strout’s “Olive, Again” is more of the delightful same. Although delightful might not be the word many would use to describe Olive, somehow the character is lovable, and the books themselves are wonderful. Again in the same interlinked short-story format and pitch-perfect dialogue, the quirky inhabitants of the small coastal town of Crosby, Maine, are well-drawn in their struggles with a range of the sadder aspects of human life.
The quintessentially eccentric retired math teacher remains true to herself in the new book. Older and perhaps marginally wiser, or more accepting, the somehow lovable Olive tends to be brutally honest, even rude, and is far from perfect in her roles as wife and mother—as she readily acknowledges. Here, Olive looks back on her life in an effort to come to terms with her disappointments in her family, her neighbors and herself.
She continues to make both humorous and poignant observations about the realities of aging. “When you get old, you become invisible. It’s just the truth. And yet it’s freeing in a way. … You go through life and you think you are something. Not in a good way, and not in a bad way. But you think you are something, and then you see that you are no longer anything. To a waitress with a huge hind end, you’ve become invisible. And it’s freeing.”
In “The Big Sky,” Atkinson’s protagonist Jackson Brodie is older, too—and still flawed, sullen and self-deprecating yet endearing. As a private investigator in the northeastern U.K. seaside village where his ex and their teenage son live, he works mostly straightforward infidelity cases.
This is a typically lengthy Atkinson novel (400 pages to the 300 of “Olive, Again”) filled with excellent writing, dry humor, a timely issue (human trafficking) and a large enough cast of characters that it is occasionally hard to keep track; if you don’t pay close attention—no skimming Atkinson’s prose!—you might have to re-read previous pages. In addition, each chapter tends to change perspective, bringing not only a different character or voice, but also a different time in the story.
When Brodie takes on a client who thinks she is being followed, his job changes course toward complex and challenging. All the characters, disparate plots and subplots sort out to an ending that seems inevitable. There’s often a heavy dose of coincidence, which according to Brodie (here and in previous books) “is just an explanation waiting to happen.”
“Worlds were colliding all over the place,” Brodie observed. Without giving away anything more, the resolution of “The Big Sky” addresses a major theme in the real world: the relationship between justice and the law.
I enjoyed reading both of these books, and hope neither author takes as long to write more about these wonderful characters. Still, the results were worth the wait.