I’m not sure why, yet, but I don’t have a lot of American writers on my shelf and in my line of interest. However, Elizabeth Strout has been there on my literary horizon ever since I saw the film version of her novel Olive Kitteridge (2008) starring the magnificent Francis McDermott. And I’m not sure how but the sequel, Olive Again (2019) is in my pile of books on my bedside table. Then my sister, an avid reader, praised Strout’s Oh William! (2021) – shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize – and a visiting friend left me this one, Lucy by the Sea (2022) when she returned home. I read it.
It’s my first pandemic novel. By that I mean it’s the first novel I’ve read that, to some degree, is about the pandemic. Lucy, and her ex-husband, William, leave New York and set up a home in a small house on the Maine coast. He was worried about her and wanted to get her away from the danger.
It’s written in the first person and it reads like a journal. Lucy shares her inner feelings and expectations, usually unfulfilled, along with what she did, who she met, and what she said. It wasn’t long before I realised that she isn’t a very easy woman. I always admire a writer who can create an unlovely character through a 1st person narrative. (The last time I experienced this was in Tim Winton’s Breath (2008)) However, she is self-reflective and so knows not to voice her dislikes too much. She dislikes most things. But she likes Bob, a near neighbour, but not his wife, Margaret. She certainly dislikes the house William has brought her to, the weather, most of the furniture, the grey light, and the loneliness. Lucy’s life is her family: two daughters, their husbands, one she likes, one she doesn’t, William, of course, her ex, and her late second husband, David, whom she misses dreadfully. William also has an ex-wife – she left him taking their daughter – and a half-sister he’s only just met. Needless to say Lucy’s family world is complicated.
Lucy is also surprisingly unaware of the seriousness of the pandemic, even when friends and New York neighbours die because of it. She feels displaced, uneasy, and wonders when she can return to her New York apartment. Set against this general feeling of displacement is the narrative of the events around her and her family told in very plain, uncluttered, and conversational language.
It’s a soft book, and a handsome volume.
By the end she is slightly more aware and accepting of her situation even though her life has changed dramatically.
Strout has written about these characters before in My Name is Lucy Barton (2016), and Oh William! of course; even Olive Kitteridge makes a small appearance in this one.
I enjoyed it, yes, but the interest is solely due to the character of Lucy: how will she deal with hardship, what will she say to her daughter who is mad at her, and what will she do with William after she’s put her nightie back on?
You can buy the ebook or hardback version here.
Here is an interview with Elizabeth Strout about Lucy by the Sea, if you can manage to forgive the rather verbose interviewer.