Review: Coming up for air in Strout’s pandemic voyage

“Lucy by the Sea,” by Elizabeth Strout (Random House)

Returning to characters of previous novels, Elizabeth Strout folds them into COVID-19’s twist of fate in “Lucy by the Sea.” Lucy’s world is on the verge of collapse, a pandemic wreaking havoc on a country on the brink of a civil war. The broader social context of doom and despair contrasts with the close and compassionate first-person narrator and reflects the novel’s primary interests in loss and love on a systemic and personal level.

The novel inhabits an emotionally rich terrain, where past failures shine light on future possibilities, where strength comes from vulnerability and where chance challenges choices. The novel begins with Lucy’s ex-husband, William, a prescient scientist, insisting she leave New York City and weather out the pandemic with him in a coastal Maine town. Lucy agrees, seeing her community gradually perish before departing her city.

In Maine, Lucy takes long walks, watches the news, befriends neighbors, witnesses chance encounters and rides out the various stages of the pandemic familiar to us all. She also reflects on past heartbreak, mothers her adult daughters through their plights in love and work and accepts her aging and imperfect self. At the same time, Lucy observes violence across class, political, racial and gender lines, on the news, outside her car window and mixed into the lives of her loved ones. The immediate state of lockdown creeps into the conclusions she draws about life’s circumstances, which she finds to be a kind of lockdown themselves.

Strout’s prose is truthful and emphatic. At times lyrical, at moments burdened, the layered texture to Strout’s tone fights a hint of self-doubt with patience and kindness. She highlights the point of what she is trying to say, which makes for a narrator who is in conversation with the reader, always trying to reach whoever is listening to her story. Her descriptions are vivid and unique, memories tinged a yellow shade, the world’s texture either folding itself into bed or constantly unfolding into the unknown. Sometimes lockdown feels like she’s stuck in a block of wood or muted underwater. After living in Maine, she likens an Airbnb in New York to a coffin. Strout is a natural and generous writer, letting feeling and intuition lead her craft.

While having read the series of novels that precede “Lucy by the Sea” would orient familiarity with the background context of the current relationship-driven territory, it is not essential to being immersed in Strout’s writing, which lives in the moment. Someone familiar with Strout’s previous novels would surely connect to this one on a deeper level, the characters’ previous iterations helping to illuminate the strides made in this novel. As the characters deal with the guilt and shame of their pasts, this novel celebrates serendipity meeting choice.

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