Lucy By the Sea by Elizabeth Strout

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Reviewed by Harriet

It’s less than a year since I wrote my review of Elizabeth Strout’s Booker shortlisted Oh William! here on Shiny. It was the third of her books to feature Lucy Barton, her unforgettable central character, whose life and mind by this stage the reader had come to know in some detail. At the end of that review I wrote ‘Strout has described this as the third volume in a trilogy, and much as I’d like to think there may be more to come, I suspect this will be the last word on Lucy. But who knows?’. Who knew, indeed. For here is Lucy back again, and for the second time she is in Maine with her long-ago divorced first husband William. Last time, William was on a fruitless search for his recently discovered half-sister, who, when he found her, refused to see him. But now very different events have taken the couple back to Maine, this time to a rented house on the coast: the US is now in the grip of a pandemic, and William wants to take Lucy somewhere where she will be safe. 

I’ve never had the least desire to read a pandemic novel, and I was quite surprised to find that this was going to be one. But if course it’s a Lucy Barton novel in which the pandemic happens to play a part, so that was not going to stop me. Each of the previous three novels – My Name is Lucy Barton (2016), Anything is Possible (2017), and Oh William! (2021) – have uncovered a little more of Lucy’s past. Despite her appallingly abusive and poverty stricken childhood, she has become a successful novelist, but the childhood traumas have left her with a troubled psyche, prone to anxiety and self doubt, and frequent feelings that she is somehow invisible. All these things are brought forcefully to the surface when, in the spring of 2020, William insists on taking her away from her much-loved apartment in New York. Not wanting to alarm her, he tells her it’s ‘just for a few weeks’, but insists she brings her computer just in case she feels like writing while she’s there. Lucy is completely bemused – like many people at the time, she knows there’s a virus around, but she can’t relate to the implications. Even when a close friend is hospitalised and dies on a ventilator, or when she sees William putting on protective gloves at the petrol station, nothing seems to bring the seriousness of the situation home. Over the coming months, though, she comes to accept what’s happening – the solitary walks, the socially distanced meetings with masked friends, the painful reunion with the beloved daughters who she can’t hug. Forced to spend twenty-four hours a day with the husband who she has been divorced from longer than she was married to him, she sometimes finds him irritating, but also comes to appreciate his great protective care for her. 

‘Lucy’, he said. He said it with difficulty. ‘Lucy, yours is the life I wanted to save….My own life I care very little about these days, except I know the girls still depend on me, especially Bridget, she’s still just a kid. But Lucy, if you should die from this, it would —‘ He shook his head. ‘I only wanted to save your life…’

And indeed, as they both mourn the partners they have recently lost – William’s third wife has left him, taking their young daughter, and Lucy’s much-loved second husband has died – they draw closer together, finding surprising comfort in each other.

The Lucy of this novel is frailer than she has appeared before. She worries that she’s losing her mind, and wonders if it’s approaching old age, though she’s only in her sixties. It’s clear, though, that the enormous pressure of outside events has just been too much to take in: not only her bereavement, then the pandemic and resultant loss of family and friends, but also the political situation in the country – ‘the president’ (no names are ever mentioned here) has been re-elected, she witnesses the storming of the Capitol on TV, she hears of the murder of a black man by a white policeman, she discovers that a new friend not only supports the president but is clearly an anti-vaxer. Then there’s the family situation, in particular her relationship with her two daughters. Both married, neither of them particularly happily as it turns out, they seem to be closer to their father William than they are to Lucy herself, something she has great trouble processing. With such huge, turbulent changes going on both within and without, it’s scarcely surprising to find her mind is somehow shutting down and replacing pain and anxiety with confusion and lack of acceptance. 

All this makes it sound like this is a very sad novel, and it certainly has moments of great sadness, but the Lucy who emerges at the end has got through the pain and confusion. She’s started writing again, though she thinks her story, featuring a violent white policeman who she finds herself growing surprisingly fond of – ‘In a way that is not uncommon for me as a writer, I sort of began to feel what it was like to be inside his skin’ – may not be publishable. She has reconnected with her girls, while at the same time realising that once you bring someone into the world, they will no longer belong to you. She’s contented with her life with William, as she sits on the stoop waiting for him to come home:

And then this thought went through my mind.
We are all in lockdown. We just don’t know it, that’s all.
But we do the best we can. Most of us are just trying to get through.

This is a wonderful novel. Please read it.

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Harriet is a co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Elizabeth Strout, Lucy by the Sea (Viking, 2022). 978-0241606995, 304pp., hardback.

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2 comments

  1. Hmmm, I love all Elizabeth Strout’s previous works. This one was underwhelming and repetitive. Her writing for this book was filled with political ideologies and a good amount of virtue signaling.

    Still, I am eagerly awaiting her next book and for the time being may revisit and enjoy her older works.

  2. Agreed! My favorite so far!

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