Book Review: Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout

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.)

Book Review: Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout (Random House, October 2021)

My last in-person visit to my local public library was on Thursday, March 12, 2020, to pick up a bag of books “just in case” the whole coronavirus thing was really a thing. Ha! The K-8 elementary school where I taught sent us home that day with instructions to be prepared to teach via Zoom starting on Monday, March 16, 2020. Little did we know!

Standing at the new fiction shelves, doing my favorite kind of shopping (not a shoe girl, a handbag girl, or even a jewelry girl when it comes to shopping), one of the librarians walked by and said, “Have you read Olive Kitteridge?” I told him no, and went to look for it, but their copy was checked out.

Fast forward to November of 2020, when I had long ago exhausted the bag of books from the library and had started to use Libby/Overdrive to feed my obsession with reading, I remembered that conversation with the librarian and downloaded Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. Within just a few pages I realized that I wasn’t reading an ordinary book written by an ordinary author. This was something completely different. I was torn between flying through it in one setting or dragging it out to make it last longer.

Because I was late to the Strout party, I was lucky enough to download its sequel, Olive Again, just a few months later. After I blew through that one, I I read I Am Lucy Barton. Once I was fully vaccinated, I made my maiden voyage to my favorite used bookstore and bought copies of all the Strout titles there. I’m so happy I have some from her back list to still read: Anything is Possible (which I think is part of the Lucy Barton storyline), The Burgess Boys, Abide with Me, and Amy and Isabelle. Needless to say, I am a fan for life.

And then, NetGalley listed Strout’s latest novel, Oh William! Of course I requested it immediately. And just like the others, I could not put it down. I don’t know how she does it, but it only takes a paragraph or two and I’m fully immersed in whatever world Elizabeth Strout chooses to create.

To be honest, Oh William! to me is quite different from Olive Kitteridge and her sequel. Where I found Olive’s story to be inspirational and uplifting, I found Lucy and William to be raw and disturbing. How can I like both ends of the spectrum? Well, I guess that is the magic of Strout’s writing for me.

In promotional materials for Oh William! Strout said it was inspired by the deep secrets being unearthed by the DNA ancestry testing now available. While that is one of the story arcs in Oh William!, I didn’t consider it to be the main one. For me, the book is a continuation of the continuous untangling and re-tangling of the relationship between Lucy and William. In both Lucy Barton and Oh William, there were things I loved about both Lucy and William, but there were also things I hated about both those characters as well. Just like in real life, nothing is all good or all bad, and these two people are perfect examples of that. Strout even has a quote on her website that drives this home, “It is not ‘good’ or ‘bad’ that interests me as a writer, but the murkiness of human experience and the consistent imperfections of our lives.” Murky completely describes Lucy and William’s relationship, where each individual is a character in the story and their relationship is another character entirely.

For fans of Elizabeth Strout, Oh William! will be another home run. If you are new to Elizabeth Strout’s work, may I suggest you start with Olive Kitteridge, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2009. There you will find the brilliance of how Strout intertwines thirteen short stories with Olive being the constant that ties it all together in her flawed and fascinating way.

Thank you to NetGalley for an ARC of this new novel.