Saturday, September 10, 2022

Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout

Lucy by the Sea is Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout’s latest entry in the Lucy Barton Amagash series after last year’s phenomenal Booker nominee Oh William! It’s a stand-alone novel, but I recommend reading My Name is Lucy Barton, Anything is Possible, and Oh William! to fully understand the characters in this character-driven novel. 

It’s March 2020, and Lucy’s ex-husband William, a scientist, feels that the new virus will be serious, so he begs Lucy to leave New York City. His friend Bob Burgess, who was a marvelous character in Strout’s 2013 The Burgess Boys, returns and offers Willam an empty home on the ocean in Burgess’s rural Maine village. Lucy doesn’t think they’ll be gone long and she packs only a small suitcase and doesn’t plan to take her laptop. William insists that acclaimed author Lucy needs her laptop, but she doesn’t see the need and William takes it. Later, that proves important to her story. Their fourteen-day quarantine grows longer and Lucy can’t stand the cold, the lack of green vegetation (having left New York when daffodils were beginning to bloom), and the isolation of having no one but William and occasionally Bob Burgess to talk with outside in the wind and cold. Lucy grew up in deep poverty and being cold is both a physical and an emotional deprivation that wounds her. As the weather improves, she begins walking more and also volunteers at a local outdoor food pantry where she begins to meet some of the townspeople. 

As I read Lucy’s ruminations, I felt she was recreating what was inside my head and heart, especially in that first year of the pandemic. She perfectly captured the feelings so many of us had when we couldn’t concentrate, were afraid for our children, suffered from an inability to sleep or relax, and had difficulties understanding how those who didn’t share our opinions were acting. That she also captured some of the coping mechanisms we used, makes this novel a gift instead of a lament. 

When Lucy realizes how much many of the townspeople resent those who’ve decamped there from cities, she begins to understand the deep divide our country was experiencing. Because she received a scholarship and attended college unlike the rest of her family and most of those in her hometown, she understood that she now had the means to live safely by the sea while others were losing their jobs or dying.

When rioters breached the Capitol on January 6, 2020, Lucy pondered, 

“What if all the jobs I had taken in my life were not enough to really make a living, what if I felt looked down upon all the time by the wealthier people in this country, who made fun of me and my religion and guns. I did not have religion and I did not have guns, but suddenly I felt that I saw what these people were feeling; they were like my sister Vicky, and I understood them. They had been made to feel poorly about themselves, they were looked at with disdain, and they could no longer stand it.” 

While volunteering at the food pantry, Lucy became friends with Charlene, a younger woman who worked as an apartment cleaner. She began walking with her occasionally. Several months later, Lucy and Charlene were sitting outside and Charlene said, “I’m not going to work at the food pantry anymore.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Well,” she tugged her coat closer to her and said, “When the vaccines come out—and they’re coming—I’m not going to get one, and so I won’t be able to work there.”

“They told you that?”

“Yup.” Charlene picked at one eye with a gloved hand.

I almost said, why won’t you get a vaccine? But I did not say that, and she did not tell me why.

“I’m sorry,” I said, and she said, “Thanks.”

We sat there in the quiet, and then she said, “Well, let’s get walking.”

Lucy by the Sea is a book with themes and lessons that keep nudging my soul telling me to be quiet and listen without trying to fix or explain. It’s a novel I read in less than a day. I plan to return to explore it often. 

Summing it Up: Read Lucy by the Sea to explore the Covid world we all encountered. Fall into it to ruminate on what most of us have yet to fathom about how we changed, stagnated, became embittered, worried, and learned or didn’t learn to accept that our world was a different place. Experience the depth and humanity of the brilliant characters Elizabeth Strout creates and be grateful to live when those characters periodically reappear in fresh new novels to entertain and comfort us. 

Rating: Five Stars

Publication Date: September 20, 2022

Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Gourmet, Grandma’s Pot Roast, Book Club

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