Review of Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout
In Lucy by the Sea, familiar Strout characters Lucy Barton and her ex-husband William flee New York City for rural Maine during the Covid-19 pandemic. The novel offers introspection, vulnerability, and new beginnings.
In Elizabeth Strout's newest novel (published today!) Lucy by the Sea, Lucy Barton and her ex-husband William, characters from earlier Strout novels, leave New York City for rural Maine during the Covid-19 lockdown.
Lucy's sparely recounted version of events is peppered with diarylike "I do remember hearing that" remarks, offhanded mentions of characters we've met before (like Olive Kitteridge), and Lucy's incessant, varied worries.
But despite her insecurities and what sometimes feels like fragility, Lucy is often able to see the difficult truth in situations and face them with stolid resolve. She alludes to her difficult childhood circumstances (which are more fully explored in My Name Is Lucy Barton), and we see that her lifelong ability to cope with despair and grim events serve her well in her current circumstances.
The nearby ocean is a haunting presence but also a steady, everchanging comfort to Lucy. To her surprise, she begins to notice and respond to the wonders of the light, the weather, the air, and the changing scenery of her daily walks in beautiful and immersive passages in the book.
And the ocean was immense; we could hear it at night now with the windows open. I learned this about the sound of the sea: There were two levels to it, there was a deep ongoing sound that was quietly massive, and there was also the sound of the water hitting the rocks; always this was thrilling to me.
Strout takes us into the heart of a stressful, unusual pandemic situation in which Lucy and William, longtime friends and ex-spouses, live in intimate solitude together, wondering about and worrying about their daughters, each other, themselves, and the world.
Lucy by the Sea captures an otherworldly feeling of drifting in time while facing horrifying, previously unimagined realities of illness and death, disease risk and spread, and the weight of the unknown:
There was for me during this time a sense of being dazed. As though, in a way, I was not capable of taking in everything that was happening in this world.
Lucy by the Sea references the characters' experienced small-town resistance to New Yorkers, notes the privilege of being able to isolate without hardship, and includes real-life pandemic-era events such as the murder of George Floyd. Lucy explores with insight the perspective of those on the other end of the political spectrum from Lucy herself:
They had been made to feel poorly about themselves, they were looked at with disdain, and they could no longer stand it.
I didn't feel particularly connected to the characters of Lucy or William in Strout's novel Oh William! But I love Strout's books, so I was delighted to dive back into the many reflections, vulnerabilities, memories, and unexpected moments in Lucy by the Sea. They each seem to find the other--and their relationship--awkward and irritating at times, but their deep caring for each other and their moments of shorthand after decades of being in love and then linked together are lovely.
In order to feel the full weight of this book, I think it's important to first read Strout's My Name Is Lucy Barton. Lucy's creation of an imaginary, supportive mother and her loving responses to and comfort for Lucy in this book absolutely broke my heart.
I received a prepublication edition of this book courtesy of Random House Publishing Group and NetGalley.
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Elizabeth Strout is also the author of Olive Kitteridge.