First, the numbers: this is my seventh Elizabeth Strout book and my fourth pandemic book (Intimations by Zadie Smith, Our Country Friends by Gary Shteyngart, and The Sentence by Louise Erdrich).
In March of 2020 Lucy Barton, the subject of four of Strout’s books, is told by her ex-husband William to pack to leave New York City in a few days’ time. She agreed, assuming she would return in a few weeks. Lucy, a successful author, accepted William’s authority in this as he was a scientist. Even as time went by, Lucy was bewildered. She says “All Lincoln Center was closed down. This baffled me, I could not grasp it.” And later “Almost always, there was that sense of being underwater; of things not being real.” William works to get their daughters who also lived in NYC to leave and he is knowledgable and persuasive at finding ways to protect all of them.
William and Lucy go to a house in Maine arranged by a friend, Bob Burgess (from Strout’s book The Burgess Boys). As Lucy describes their lives, I remembered the dramatic changes in our lives, the isolation, the struggles to have food and other necessities on hand, and the care we received from others. I don’t remember being bewildered; in March 2020 an NBA game was cancelled just as it was to begin because a player tested positive, and minutes later the NBA cancelled the season. That clarified the situation for me.
When I think of my siblings, I know we were very fortunate. Our morning coffee friends began meeting by Zoom, we read to our grandchildren daily online, we saw our in-town daughter and family outside often, we had online visits with our Iowa daughter and family, we had our evening rituals to depend on. Both my siblings were alone and within a year and a half, they both were changed by the isolation. While I feel I aged more than I would have in three ordinary years, the isolation aged my siblings even more. William declares that he took Lucy to Maine to save her life. It turns out he was saving her physical life and her mental health (and his own).
It’s interesting to consider what societal issues Strout included and what she didn’t. The closing of schools with the trauma of balancing the physical health of children with their social and educational needs was not a part of the book. The George Floyd murder was and it affected her characters. She mentions the 2020 election this way: “And then it was November and the election took place. I feel no point to recording all of that. I will only say that it was a very tense time for me, and also for most of the country.” While receiving a vaccination is a part of Lucy and Henry’s story, my experience of that was of great euphoria. There was such joy as each of us in our extended family was able to be vaccinated.
There is so much I loved about this book. Lucy herself comes more to life in this book than I found in previous books. William became interesting with his connection to his sister, the two young adult daughters have their complicated lives, and there’s dear old Bob Burgess. We even hear of Olive Kitteridge through another character. What a fine book.
Elizabeth Strout, Lucy by the Sea, Random House, 2022, 288 pages (I read the Kindle version). Available in the public library.