Elizabeth Strout changed my life as a reader, and more importantly, as a writer. If you read my review of Strout’s Oh William, you know that I was introduced to Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel Olive Kitteridge by my local librarian. While reading Strout’s masterpiece of thirteen interwoven short stories, I finally (FINALLY) came up with a plan for my own novel, an idea I came up with a long time ago but couldn’t figure out the structure I wanted to deploy. Now, I carry Strout’s stories and words around with me, a kind of mental inspiration board designed by my own personal muse, as I work on my novel.
Since reading Olive Kitteridge and its sequel Olive, Again, I have been reading my way through Strout’s back list, including I Am Lucy Barton, the first in Strout’s Amgash series, which includes Anything is Possible (Amgash #2), Oh William mentioned above (Amgash #3) and now, Lucy by the Sea (Amgash #4), Strout’s latest novel, to be released on September 20, 2022.
Strout’s latest novel, which is set during the coronavirus pandemic, will NOT be for everyone. Some of us are still too raw and wounded by the isolation, death, and economic fallout of COVID to cozy up on the couch with a cup of tea, a warm blanket, and a 300-page novel about the stress and anxiety we have all been through since March of 2020. Add to that the election of November, 2020, the BLM protests, and the subsequent political upheaval of January 6, 2021, and honestly, this book should have a few trigger warnings on the cover: miscarriage, divorce, adultery, isolation, riots, loneliness, aging, and yes, death.
Yet, I loved this book. At times, I felt like Elizabeth Strout had rented space in my head for her pandemic writing room. If you read books 1-4 of the Amgash series you know that Lucy had a terrible childhood, and that is an understatement. She is STILL carrying that baggage around, even when she packs her small purple rolling suitcase to leave NYC as the pandemic cranks up and her scientist ex-husband William insists she go to Maine with him to ride out the attack of the coronavirus. He occasionally has to remind her that he is trying to save her life.
Once in Maine, she is a duck out of water, seemingly calm above the water but paddling furiously below it. She longs for the hustle and bustle of the city, even as she takes her daily walks along the rocky coastline of Crosby, Maine, even as she admires the beauty and majesty of the ocean. She doesn’t talk about whether she is reading much, or even writing much, unlike Strout, who managed to write this book during the same international pandemic her main character was living through. Instead of using her writing to help move her through her anxiety over the pandemic, her relationship with her ex-husband William, her grown daughters and their own marriage issues, she suffers sleepless nights, her only consolation to her angst is her near constant conversations with “the nice mother I had made up,” as opposed to her dark thoughts of her “real mother, not the nice one I made.” How sad is that?
I had what I think most would call a “normal childhood,” and I loved my mother dearly. She struggled with showing her emotions but I am sure she loved me dearly, too, but I too have my baggage, and some nights I am restless, unpacking and repacking the effects of Hurricane Katrina on my family, as well as a few personal demons that periodically visit me. Lucy at one point says, “Everyone needs to feel important.” This is yet another example of where Strout creates a character with elements that really resonate with me. As a veteran teacher with retirement on the horizon, I fear that once I am not a teacher, in my middle school language arts classroom, shaping readers and guiding young writers, will I still feel important?
As the world went on lock down, many felt listless, wandering from room to room in sweats, watching CNN on repeat, learning how to Zoom, trying to work from home. If Lucy by the Sea wanders around a bit, like all of us during lock down, I’m okay with that. If Lucy rehashes all the pains and pangs of her life, and Strout rehashes bits and bobs of other story lines, I’m okay with that. As a relatively new–but avid–fan of Strout’s, I’m okay with it all, as long as she keeps writing.
(Thank you to NetGalley and Random House for the advanced e-book.)