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Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout 

This is the fourth novel about Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. In her most recent novels, Elizabeth Strout has frequently revisited the characters she has created, filling in their back story or taking them into their future. This novel features Lucy Barton but includes references to Olive Kitteridge. At times she has used multiple short stories to create a different form for a novel, as in Olive Kitteridge and in Anything is Possible. This enables a wider view of the characters, but in Lucy by the Sea she keeps close to Lucy, so close that it is narrated in the first person.

Lucy by the Sea

Elizabeth Strout has great skills as a writer: in Lucy by the Sea she captures Lucy’s bewilderment at the advance of the coronavirus and the precautions people around her are taking. At a time when the incidence of Covid appears to be increasing again it all feels drearily similar. But in this novel, we are cast back to that time when it all seemed so unbelievable, so swift and so doom-laden.

The novel opens with a reprise of the events of Oh William, concerned especially with a trip to Maine that Lucy made with her former husband, William. They returned to their separate lives in New York. At the start of Lucy by the Sea it is the winter of 2019-2020. Lucy has just published a book and in the autumn did a promotional tour in the States.

I was also scheduled to go to Italy and Germany in the beginning of March, but in early December – it was kind of odd – I just decided I was not going to go to those places. I never cancel book tours and the publishers were not happy, but I was not going to go. As March approached someone said, “Good thing you didn’t go to Italy, they’re having that virus.” And that’s when I noticed it. I think it was the first time. I did not really think about it ever coming to New York.
But William did. (6-7)

William tries to persuade Lucy to leave New York. She continues to downplay the dangers of the virus, until people in her social circle begin to fall ill.

It’s odd how the mind does not take in anything until it can. (7)

She continues to resist William’s increasingly determined efforts to get her to move out, until the first deaths take place. Together they travel to a house he has rented for them in Maine, on the shore. At first Lucy thinks they will be there for just a couple of weeks, but the weeks extend into months as the pandemic persists.

Now Lucy must learn everything new: new friendships, new forms of exercise, new household routines, new ways to spend her day, a more distanced perspective on political events, and new worries about the two daughters. While everything has changed, the lives of her two daughters do not stay still either, and she is forced to take a more distant role in their lives than she would choose. She also with William thinks about passing time, about memory and about ageing. 

The narrative follows the first year of the pandemic, with all its mysteries, unexpected turns and reflection. William and Lucy make adaptations, find ways to deal with frustrations, and continue to stay safe in Maine. As her daughters go through difficulties, and her relationship with William changes, she also has to come to terms with the political situation.

On January sixth, as I came in from my afternoon walk to the cove, the television was on and William said, “Lucy, come here now and watch this.” I sat down still wearing my coat and I saw people attacking the Capitol in Washington, D.C., and I watched the news as though it was the first days of the pandemic in New York, I mean that I kept looking at the floor and had the strange sense again that my mind – or body – was trying to move away. All I can remember now is watching a man smashing a window again and again, people pushing up against one another as they got into the building while the policemen tried to hold them back. Many different colors swam before me as I saw people climbing up walls, all moving together. (233)

Later she has some insight into people who feel poorly about themselves, who had fun made of their religion and their guns, and who are looked at with disdain. But then she has clarity.

I sat for a long time on the couch in the dark; there was a half moon that shone over the ocean. And then I thought, No, those were Nazis and racists at the Capitol. And so my understanding – my imagining of the breaking of the windows – stopped there. (239)

After a year of the pandemic Lucy has experienced many challenges and has developed into a much more sympathetic person towards the people she meets and knows. She also sees more clearly the problems in her country.

I felt that this novel had put me back in touch with those early months of the pandemic, with all the fears and uncertainties, the disbelief, and the ineptitudes of our governments, and all the adjustments we made. 

I was unsure about the references to Olive Kitteridge, in a local care home, in this novel. I did not feel I needed an update on her or her love of birds.

Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout, published in 2022 by Viking. 288pp 

Thanks to Anne for the present of this book.

Related Posts

Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout (Bookword, May 2022)

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (March 2017)

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout (February 2018)

Also

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (June 2016)

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout (August 2020)

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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews, short stories

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout

I am a great admirer of Elizabeth Strout’s fiction. This will be the fourth post on Bookword focusing on her books, and the fifth novel of hers that I have read. Some of my admiration comes from the characters she draws, especially older women, and the situations she creates for them. Some of it comes from her style of writing, especially her dialogue. And some from the format she has chosen for Olive: interlinked short stories. I know other readers find her work hugely enjoyable too.

This will also be the 48th in the series championing older women in fiction in order to make them more visible. This book returns us to small towns in Maine, USA and to the character first introduced in 2008, Olive Kitteridge. 

Olive, Again

In the final episodes of the previous book Olive had recently been widowed and had met Jack – a Republican to her horror –  with whom she became friendly and ultimately intimate. Early on in this novel they are married. This collection of stories take us through the years of her second marriage and widowhood and into old age and its terrors.

We are shown small town East Coast American life, with its controlling gossip, unspoken standards and long memories. Change is also a feature. Mostly we are in Crosby but a nearby town, Shirley Falls, has been ‘overrun’ by ‘Somalians’, and the mills have closed and been demolished. Nothing is the same.

Many of the characters were taught Maths (Math) by Olive Kitteridge, and the image of her formed during this time endures. She was harsh, distant with occasional flashes of wisdom for her students. Teacher and students meet from time to time, the young people now adults, and some of them benefit from her observations about people’s suffering and her lapses into kindness. The distress of a young woman unable to choose butter in a supermarket is noticed by Olive, who helps her make her purchases, sees her home and visits when no one else does, for the woman is undergoing chemotherapy.

Memories are long-lasting. So is some damage. And Olive’s relationship with her adult son has never been good. They fell out badly when Olive went on a visit to New York to stay with his family, as revealed in Olive Kitteridge. Now he visits with his new wife and the visit again does not go well.

It came to her then with a horrible whoosh of the crescendo of truth. She had failed on a colossal level. She must have been failing for years and not realized it. She did not have a family as other people did. […] And it had not happened out of the blue. She could not understand what it was about her, but it was about her that had cause this to happen. And it had to have been there for years, maybe all of her life, how would she know? (91)

The reader is perhaps more observant than Olive. We see her clumsiness with people, her abruptness and her kindness. We see how she pushes people away, expects obedience from children, speaks truth rather than tact. And we see that people hold onto their images of her. She is intelligent rather than warm and does not conform to small town social regulation.

In some stories Olive makes only a small appearance, always in character but sometimes it feels too engineered. But the theme of class hierarchies and poverty continue through each story, as people learn to live with each other and the disappointments and catastrophes of their lives.

Ultimately Olive loses her second husband, the man who had loved her ‘Oliveness’. And she becomes old and even more lonely, has a heart attack and becomes dependent upon others.

At one point she meets Crosby’s own national poet in a coffee shop and because she is lonely Olive tells her about her life. (Later she find the conversation published as a poem in a magazine.) She tries to attract the waitress’s attention and then explains why being invisible can be liberating:

“It’s just that you don’t count anymore, and there is something freeing about that. […] I don’t think I can explain this well. But you go through life thinking you’re something. Not in a good way, and not in a bad way. But you think you are something. And then you see” – Olive shrugged in the direction of the girl who had served the coffee – “that you no longer are anything. To a waitress with a huge hind end, you’ve become invisible. And it’s freeing.” (204)

The format of the linked short stories allows Elizabeth Strout to show her protagonist both close up and at a distance. The interweaving of the characters’ lives and events reflect small town life. Everyone has their dilemmas and difficulties, and some have catastrophes that pile up in an almost comic way. Some characters even appear from other novels (Amy and Isabelle for example)

I was struck by the dialogue in this book. The story called Helped is largely a phone conversation of a bereaved young woman, Suzanne, who is just learning the full story of her family and the family lawyer. He is kind and a good listener and their conversation gradually peels back the pain Suzanne experienced within her family, and his own family origins in Hungary. The ‘beats’ in the long scene of the phone call are carefully and effectively timed, and we leave the conversation seeing that they have given each other something important and human.

The characters are authentic in their complexity. They have doubts, contradictions, regrets and some take bold leaps. The attraction of Olive is in her authenticity. She is a large woman, prone to dismissing people with a casual wave of her hand and to making judgements about them. But she also has insight and compassion for the lives of others. In the final pages she reflects on her own life and her approaching death. 

It was herself, she realised, that did not please her. (289)

She concludes in this way:

I do not have a clue who I have been. Truthfully, I do not understand a thing. (289) 

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout, published in hardback by Viking, Penguin in 2019. The paperback is due out in November 2020. Thanks to Anne for the lend.

paperback version

Links to related reviews

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (on Bookword June 2016)

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (March 2017)

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout (February 2018)

JacquieWine’s review of Olive, Again appeared on her blog in November 2019.

See also a comprehensive list including many recent recommendations by readers, on the page called About the Older Women in Fiction Series.

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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews, short stories