a claustrophobic portrait of a terrible pandemic year

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In her latest novel, Lucy by the Sea, Elizabeth Strout captures the bewilderment of all of us at the start of the pandemic. Her character, Lucy Barton, not only admits she didn’t see it coming, but even when she noticed the existence of the virus, she didn’t really believe it would ever reach New York.


Review: Lucy by the Sea – Elizabeth Strout (Penguin Random House)


It’s March 2020 and Lucy, a writer, was scheduled to travel to Italy and Germany, a book tour she had, with fortuitous foreknowledge, canceled in December. Lucy is a woman who is prone to sudden flashes of insight – just like her mother, who was known to have “visions” – which is why, looking back on those early days of the pandemic, not having felt her threat surprises her.

Even when her ex-husband William’s oldest friend is put on a ventilator and subsequently dies, it’s still hard for her to accept that it’s happening to people she knows. Looking back, Lucy remarks, “It’s strange how the mind doesn’t take in anything until it can.

William was quicker to spot the impending danger. He begs their two daughters Becka and Chrissy to leave New York with their husbands, before hastily picking up Lucy from her apartment and taking her to the Maine coastal town of Crosby.

At this point in the book, fans of Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Olive Kitteridge will feel a thrill of recognition and anticipation, as the fictional coastal town of Crosby is “Olive Territory.” With this deft move, Strout pulls together the separate threads of much of the fiction she’s written since publishing Olive Kitteridge in 2008.

Before establishing herself as a successful writer in New York, Lucy Barton’s turf was the small Midwestern town of Amgash, Illinois. The deprivation of her Amgash childhood haunted Lucy through Strout’s previous novels, My Name is Lucy Barton and Oh William! (the latter is now shortlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize) and in two of the short stories from Anything is Possible. Now he continues to pull her into the house by the sea in Maine.

In My Name is Lucy Barton, a writer she admires tells Lucy:

You will only have one story… You write your story in many ways, never worry about the story. You will only get one.

The story Lucy must tell, over and over again, and in different ways, is the story of her childhood, of her poverty and isolation, and of her complex relationship with a mother unable to tell her own child that she loved him.

Even as an adult, Lucy doesn’t know her mother’s story. In Lucy by the Sea, she invented a “nice mother” to whom she can speak in private, distinct from the real mother with whom the silences which were established between them were inevitably more poignant than the words.

Emotional confinement

Locked away in a cliffside house overlooking the waves, Lucy and William struggle to fill their days. Lucy has trouble reading and as for writing, she believes she will never write a word again. This feeling of being frozen and unable to focus was all too common during this uncertain and anxiety-provoking time of the pandemic, especially among writers. But for Lucy, there is the realization that this is a state she recognizes, having spent her childhood in a kind of emotional confinement.

In Maine, unable to fall back on the activities that usually soothe her, Lucy also mourns her husband David, cellist of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, who died a year earlier. William, too, is surprisingly single since his wife, Estelle, came out and took their daughter Bridget, along with a good chunk of their furniture.

Without escaping the monotony of their self-isolation, Lucy, who under ordinary circumstances is endearingly quick to declare her love – especially for people – continually finds herself finding things to hate: she hates being in other people’s houses, hate the smell; she hates being cold, but hates sitting in a house with a coat; she hates Van Gogh’s puzzle William insists they try; she hates snow and she hates William after dinner when she suspects he isn’t really listening to her. With extraordinary patience, William tells Lucy to stop hating everything.

To make matters worse, far from welcome in Maine, some locals are so hostile towards the couple that a message urging them to return to New York is anonymously attached to their car. Then, during a visit to a grocery store, a woman yells at Lucy, “You fucking New Yorkers! Get out of our state!

When Lucy scolds William for not being nice to her after the woman yells, William, becoming uncharacteristically emotional, responds that his is the life he wanted to save.

“My own life doesn’t matter to me these days. But Lucy, if you were to die of it, it would be…” He shook his head wearily. “I just wanted to save your life, what if a woman yelled at you.”

When their daughters struggle – one still in New York, the other in Connecticut – Lucy and William must support them as best they can from Maine. Many readers will recognize the torment of dealing with family crises at arm’s length and not being able to embrace loved ones even when the distance is finally overcome.

no olive

Elizabeth Strout perfectly captured the fear, frustration and boredom experienced by so many of us during the first year of Covid. Even his sketchy writing style adds authenticity in a time when few of us could focus, as we hopped from one news program to another, counting down the latest case numbers and deaths. , while feeling that the very air we breathed carried a risk.

Among Strout fans, Lucy Barton is a much-loved character, but it was Olive Kitteridge who most often grabbed the headlines, with the TV miniseries based on the book, starring Frances McDormand, winning several price. The polarizing nature of Olive’s character elicits a strong reaction from readers, while the more reluctant Lucy speaks softly, like someone whispering in the reader’s ear.

Strout’s extraordinary achievement as a writer has been to illuminate so many flawed, ordinary, yet far from mundane lives through a series of interconnected stories and novels. Although each book is comprehensive, they work together satisfactorily as a cohesive whole, so that by reading them we get to know not just a handful of characters, but entire communities in a few small towns on the coast of Maine. , as well as in New York and Illinois.

Olive Kitteridge and her sequel are elegantly crafted, with their third-person (and sometimes omniscient) point of view allowing for more nuanced storytelling. Lucy Barton’s intimate first-person voice in the reader’s ear, with her tendency to speak in endless sentences that often end with “”…that’s what I mean”‘ or “‘. .. that’s what I say”‘, can get boring.

In the end, it feels like we’ve spent a year locked inside the head of a loving, anxious, and somewhat neurotic little person named Lucy Barton.

Lucy By the Sea is a perfect portrait of a terrible year, and oh how sweet it is to get outside, breathe some fresh air and see the world from other, less claustrophobic angles, both for Lucy Barton and the reader.

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