Oh Lucy! What were you thinking, fleeing the comfortable Manhattan apartment you shared with your late, doting second husband to ride out the pandemic with your philandering ex in a remote seaside cabin in Maine?
In Lucy By the Sea, Elizabeth Strout’s fourth novel since 2016 about writer Lucy Barton, we find the hyper-sensitive and supremely sympathetic heroine at sea, awash in confusion as her world — and the world — changes drastically, seemingly overnight.
When we last checked in on Lucy in Oh William! (which was just shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize), she and her first husband were both newly, unhappily single. Lucy, who overcame a traumatic, impoverished childhood in Amgash, Illinois, to become a writer celebrated for her empathic novels about have-nots and outcasts, was recently widowed; William’s vivacious third wife had left him, taking their young daughter with her. Although Lucy and William had remained friendly after their divorce, they saw more of each other that lonely year — including a trip to Maine to try to contact a half-sister William had only recently learned about on an ancestry website.
In March 2020, while Lucy is distracted by an upcoming book tour, William, a parasitologist, has been tracking the encroaching deadly new coronavirus with growing alarm. He urges their two grown daughters to flee New York City with their husbands, and instructs Lucy to grab what she needs and shelter with him in Maine. An old friend, Bob Burgess, has found them a rental house on the coast. (Unbeknownst to Bob, one of William’s many adulterous affairs was with his first wife.) Among the pleasures of Strout’s fictional world is the way characters from earlier books — like Bob, and Olive Kitteridge — keep turning up, sometimes in cameo roles.
Another pleasure is Lucy’s distinctive, plain-spoken narrative voice, which reads as if she were talking to a new friend she’s decided to take into her confidence. Lucy is honest and self-deprecating to a fault. (“Praise seems unable to enter me,” she comments.) With the benefit of hindsight, she marvels at how out of it she was, how little she understood at the start of the pandemic. “It’s odd how the mind does not take in anything until it can,” she says.
Lucy By the Sea is a chronicle of a plague year — the first year of this ongoing pandemic. It captures its disruptions, uncertainties, and anxieties better than any novel I’ve read to date on the subject. But because it is also a chronicle of Lucy’s growing insights into herself, her family, and their changing relationships during this period of enforced togetherness and separation, it is heartwarming as well as somber.
The evolving dynamic between Lucy and William is wonderfully wrought, touching but never mawkish. Although she credits him with saving her from this life-threatening disease, William is not exactly a knight on a white horse. As Lucy remarks, he’s still William: not a great listener, often remote, prone to secrets. When she brings up painful memories from her childhood, he sometimes cuts her off and says he doesn’t want to hear them again.
On the other hand, he comforts her through panic attacks, takes over the cooking (about which she’s indifferent), and thoughtfully orders warm clothes from L.L. Bean (in the correct size!) to help her through Maine’s cold, bleak spring.
Lucy, by her own account, is not a happy camper. She’s emotionally fragile and sad. She comes to realize that her childhood was essentially one long lockdown: “I never saw anyone or went anywhere,” she tells William. She reports his response: “William just looked at me and said, ‘I know, Lucy.'”
But slowly, Lucy adjusts to their circumstances. In response to the locals’ hostility toward New Yorkers, who they fear have brought the virus with them, Bob Burgess thoughtfully brings them Maine license plates for William’s car. A lovely friendship develops between Lucy and Bob over masked walks. Lucy, upset that her daughters have stopped calling her with their troubles, comments, “He made me feel that I mattered.” Meanwhile, William, determined to be a better person, gradually opens up about his own regrets.
Although simple on the surface, Strout’s new novel manages, like her others, to encompass love and friendship, joy and anxiety, grief and grievances, loneliness and shame — and a troubling sense of growing unrest and division in America. Lucy, who, like Strout, is blessed with the gift of empathy, says her writing has been motivated by “that deep desire to know what it feels like to be a different person.” Writing about her response to the pain of William’s affairs during their marriage, she comments, “You can become bigger or bitter, that is what I think.”
Disturbed by evidence of others’ hard lives during drives around poorer areas of their adopted state, Lucy and William come to lament their own small-minded, uncharitable attitudes. They watch the news of the attack on the Capitol on January 6 with horror, though Lucy, recalling her own humiliations, tries to understand these people’s anger. “They had been made to feel poorly about themselves, they were looked at with disdain, and they could no longer stand it,” she writes. However, she adds, “And then I thought, No those were Nazis and racists at the Capitol. And so my understanding — my imagining of the breaking of the windows — stopped there.”
Strout’s understanding of the human condition is capacious.