The Maine writer, Elizabeth Strout, creates masterpieces at a pace readers might not expect from their freshness, wisdom and consistent beauty. In 2016, she published “My Name Is Lucy Barton,” a fabulous novel introducing Lucy Barton, a successful New York City writer. The story centers on a few days when Lucy is visited in hospital by her estranged mother. Lucy fascinated readers worldwide, and even made it to Broadway with Laura Linney in the title role. Two more Strout novels, “Anything Is Possible” and “Oh William!” (shortlisted for a Booker Prize), developed and deepened Lucy’s past and present with layers of surprising detail, creating a quirky, hyper-sensitive and supremely sympathetic heroine. “Lucy by the Sea” is Strout’s latest work, and it picks up just after “Oh William!” ends. Lucy is 63, still writing, but lonely and miserable due to the death of her loving second husband David. Lucy’s first husband William also finds himself alone, following the sudden departure of his third wife Estelle, who calls him “unreachable” and takes off with their teenage daughter and many of their household rugs. Lucy and William married in their early 20s and had two daughters: Chrissy and Becka. William’s philandering ended the marriage.
This latest Lucy-novel finds Lucy and William both melancholy and adrift in New York City. It’s March of 2020 and COVID is starting to take hold. William, a scientist, knows it’s no joke, correctly guessing that the city will be tremendously impacted. All his life an only child, William discovers he has a half-sister living in Maine and begs Lucy accompany him there where, of course, they would be “just friends.” An old pal, Bob Burgess, has found them a rental house on the coast. (Unbeknownst to Bob, one of William’s many adulterous affairs was with his first wife.) Among the pleasures of Stout’s fictional world is the way characters from earlier books – like Bob, and Olive Kitteridge – keep turning up, sometimes in cameo roles.
Lucy and William’s life in Maine reads like a rehearsal for a marriage as well as a post-mortem on one which is already ended. There are painful moments – the sting of William’s past infidelities torments Lucy. Sometimes after an evening of not being listened to, she goes down to the water’s edge to swear. There are, however, moments of warmth and caring – setting out the cereal bowls, while William takes an early walk, the Cheerios invoking high spirits and sweet family memories when Lucy and William and their children were a family. Lucy is ecstatic to have breakfast with someone after being on her own, but when their daughter Becka’s poet husband has an extramarital affair, things darken. Asking for your serially unfaithful ex-husband’s help in calming your betrayed daughter is not easy.
Thinking she’ll only be gone for a couple of weeks, Lucy finds herself, as we all did, spending months in lockdown. (She is appalled when William admits to her that he thinks the situation could possibly go on for “a year.”) Strout brilliantly portrays the mental processes of adjusting to this strange new life: “It was as though each day was like a huge stretch of ice I had to walk over,” Lucy recalls. As turmoil grows across the world, Lucy tries, with sporadic success, to adjust to living with William again, as well as learning a few secrets about him, and coping with a town that is a bit leery of city interlopers.
The author reminds us how long suppressed fears and disorders made vile reappearances during the lockdown months. Lucy’s entire childhood was a sort of lockdown, and she suddenly comes to this realization as she is revisited by the trauma of her early years in Amgash, Ill. She’s haunted by her mother’s terrible bouts of violence; her father’s disgusting sexual menace when she was small; and her “sad and gentle” brother Pete, sleeping in a nearby barn with animals who are soon to be slaughtered. Lucy, in fact, suffers from complex PTSD stemming from her upbringing. She sees “terrifying scenes” of her beloved New York on television. The number of the dead and the mobile morgues disturb her city-dwelling daughters. And William will only listen when it suits him.
Strout is at her best on the emotional – and familial – fallout of lockdown. Meeting up for the first time in many months, masked and socially distanced, Lucy’s daughters cry when they realize they “can’t even do a family hug.” A friend visits, but sits far away on a garden chair. A depressingly macho, golf-playing relative has to be scared into quarantining. A later unexpected visit from the daughters is so hopeful that it seems to leave “an afterglow” – touching, because isn’t that something that we all experienced? Strout is extremely wise on the eternal compromises of love, marriage and ex-marriage. Finding herself in such close proximity with the man who was once her husband, Lucy sometimes finds she can’t stand him. William isn’t as emotionally available as the male neighbor she takes walks with, William doesn’t like to see her floss her teeth, and, she remembers that William “does not like to hear anything negative.” She admits, however, that he can get through to their daughters in ways she cannot.
The book is a chronicle of the first year of this ongoing pandemic, capturing its disruptions, uncertainties, and anxieties, but, most of all, it’s a love story. William, despite his many flaws is generous to Lucy, even if it’s a generosity that Lucy finds herself unable to accept without “a shiver of foreboding.” He admits, “Yours is the life I wanted to save,” when explaining why he took her out of New York.
The book is also an account of Lucy’s growing insights into herself, her family, and their changing relationships during this period of enforced togetherness and separation. Lucy’s intense courage, give a vivid sense of what it means to be alive in such troubling times. “Lucy by the Sea” is heartwarming as well as solemn and, as an example of a COVID/pandemic novel, it sets an extremely high bar for the rest that will follow.