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Lucy by the Sea, by Elizabeth Strout: A novel that makes fresh the pandemic’s strangeness

Review: Strout’s story of family and motherhood mixes ordinary life with extraordinary narrative complexity and wisdom

Lucy by the Sea
Lucy by the Sea
Author: Elizabeth Strout
ISBN-13: 9780241606995
Publisher: Viking
Guideline Price: £14.99

“I had been struck by that increasingly over the years: that when I did a television show, how there was always something slightly false about it, the perkiness of the newscasters, the setting, the whole thing. And the fact that the station was always looking for what was called ‘a hook’.”

This is Lucy Barton, the writer/narrator of Elizabeth Strout’s new novel, in typical observational form, noticing the artificiality of a media interview, the way something other than the subject of life itself is deemed necessary in order to make a story of interest.

Elizabeth Strout’s oeuvre is the very opposite of hook-driven. There is nothing showy about her books. They are often quite difficult to sum up in a single sentence. The hallmark of her writing is its elucidation of ordinary lives. Her novels are comprised of realistic details and the everyday events of a cast of interconnected characters, in narratives that can read brilliantly simple, while simultaneously juggling multiple timeframes and strands that move backwards, forwards and sideways in a remarkable rendition of life.

If, like me, you find you’re “over Covid”, to the extent that you’ve no interest in reading a fictional retelling, this book will change your mind

Lucy by the Sea is the fourth in Strout’s Amgash series, novels where Lucy Barton features as narrator and protagonist (though the second book, Anything Is Possible, is a collection of loosely interlinked stories in which she takes a chorus role). This new book is astute and timely, focused on family and motherhood, recalling the first in the series, the Booker-longlisted My Name Is Lucy Barton. Whereas the third, Oh William!, shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, had a circuitous structure, this follow-up, arriving just a year later, has a classic narrative frame whereby a seismic event – in this instance, the pandemic – sets the story in motion and gives a natural tension to proceedings.


If, like me, you find you’re “over Covid”, to the extent that you’ve no interest in reading a fictional retelling, Lucy by the Sea will change your mind. As with the superb closing story in Hilma Wolitzer’s reissued collection, Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket, the strangeness of the pandemic is made fresh through the kind of considered detail and clarity of insight that is so often missing in the moment.

Strout’s idiomatic style, the plain but persuasive pattern of her prose, makes clear in ways that feel new the collective trauma of recent years. Repetition and amplification are skilfully deployed to give the reader access to the narrator’s mindset, her unusual powers of observation. “But I will say this,” is a favourite expression of Lucy’s as she tries to give shape to the chaos.

There is also repetition in theme, across a variety of characters: poverty, loss, loneliness, food issues, infidelity, and the vitality of nature, the value of connection, which is at the heart of Strout’s writing.

The book begins with Lucy’s scientist ex-husband, William, convincing her to leave New York as the pandemic takes hold of the city. They flee to a coastal house in Maine, rented from his friend Bob Burgess. Lucy views the trip as short-term, but the weeks turn into years. What follows is a retrospective narrative of sorts, told in short, vignette-style sections that show the isolation, connections, small surprises and inevitable losses of the pandemic.

Lucy seems the perfect person to interrogate the crisis, her pervading sense of fragility and fear that harks back to her tough, impoverished past: “My whole childhood was a lockdown. I never saw anyone or went anywhere.” Although she’s sometimes unable to look a thing head-on, Lucy has an extraordinary empathy for strangers, friends and family, noticing her own inclinations and oddities as much as she does the world around her.

On being separated from her two adult daughters in difficult times: “I was aware that I felt a slight sense of remove from both the girls, and I understood this was because their sadness affected me too much.” On the creative lethargy of the pandemic: “About my work I thought: I will never write another word again.” On the intense emotions brought on by living in confinement with people, related here with a trademark dart of humour: “I should say this: It was during this time that I noticed that I hated William each night after dinner.”

‘We are all in lockdown, all the time. We just don’t know it, that’s all’

It would be easy to go on; this is a book full of wisdom. Strout, for those who don’t know her, is the Pulitzer prize-winning author of Olive Kitteridge, as well as The Burgess Boys, a New York Times bestseller, Abide With Me, and Amy & Isabelle. For her fans, there are cameos aplenty in Lucy by the Sea. For everyone else, there is a novel of subtle inquiry and understanding that proves at once unsettling and deeply comforting: “We are all in lockdown, all the time. We just don’t know it, that’s all.”

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin is a contributor to The Irish Times focusing on books and the wider arts