When I first read about Lucy by the Sea, Elizabeth Strout’s newest novel—out today—my heart sank a little. I love Strout’s work, and I’ve read all her books. The Lucy in the title is Lucy Barton, of course, who first appeared in My Name is Lucy Barton (2016), then tangentially in Anything is Possible (2017), and finally in Oh William! (2021), which was published less than a year ago. There is a strength and an honesty to Lucy’s voice that I greatly admire; the first-person voice is used perfectly to define and delineate character. But this novel is Lucy’s journey through the first year of the pandemic, and I have struggled reading fiction about the pandemic. It’s too soon, somehow; it’s all too familiar. Fiction during this time has been a solace for me, a retreat. A chance to spend time in another world, one that may well have its own chaos and trouble, but one that is distinctly not the one we’re living in.
But because Elizabeth Strout is Elizabeth Strout, and Lucy Barton is Lucy Barton, I couldn’t resist. So I began reading the book, even though I was aware that I was holding back a bit, not allowing myself to be completely drawn in. I wasn’t convinced that the novel would have enough in it compel me to read beyond my apprehensions and anxieties. But soon enough—only twelve pages in, in fact—I found I couldn’t put the book down. Once again, Strout, a Ploughshares guest editor and contributor, has written a novel that pulls the reader in with its strength of voice, its compelling interiority, and a sense of community that welcomes the reader into its pages.
The novel is visually interesting, as well, with paragraphs often separated by white space. Strout uses this technique right from the start, which underscores the starkness of the time but also asserts that we are beginning from the start:
Like many others, I did not see it coming.
But William is a scientist, and he saw it coming; he saw it sooner than I did, is what I mean.
There is a drilling down that happens with the “One” and then the “i,” as though we are being led down into an empty space. Strout also employs one of Lucy’s often-used catchphrases when she says “is what I mean.” Lucy says this many times in the earlier books, but here, in combination with this opening, we feel the echo of that sense of bearing down, of trying to get it right. She uses this phrase to restate or to clarify what she has already said. It is her way of making sure her meaning is clear. To a reader already familiar with Lucy, we are immediately comforted by this turn of phrase: we know the way she speaks and the way she thinks. It is as though we are with a friend, and she is telling us the story of her pandemic year. To someone new to Lucy, the phrase has a bit of folksiness to it, and the voice feels spoken, rather than written. That, too, feels comforting. We are in the company of this character; she is speaking directly to us. We are in conversation; we are not alone.
We also see, here, how Strout sets up the idea of knowing and not knowing right from the start. Lucy—like most of us, as she notes—did not see the pandemic on the horizon, but William did. The confusion and disarray that is caused by not knowing something is a theme that Strout touches on again and again in the book. A few pages later, after William has convinced Lucy that they must leave New York, she says:
Here is what I did not know that morning in March. I did not know that I would never see my apartment again. I did not know that one of my friends and a family member would die of this virus. I did not know that my relationship with my daughters would change in ways I could never have anticipated. I did not know that my entire life would become something new.
This tension between not knowing and knowing is the thread that pulls the reader through the novel. Lucy is telling us this story from some future moment, looking back at the start of the pandemic, and considering what she knows now versus what she knew then. By using the retrospective voice, Strout skillfully tells us a little something about what will happen over the course of the book, over the course of this year in Lucy’s life. She gives us enough plot details to pull us into the story and make us want to read on. And she continues this throughout the book, almost as though she is setting out a course of breadcrumbs for us to follow. By being in Lucy’s head and voice, we, too, are deep into that uncertainty of not knowing. It is as though we need the encouragement to read on, just as Lucy needs encouragement to keep moving forward, one day at a time.
Lucy and William (who is Lucy’s ex-husband and the father of her two grown daughters) leave New York City and head to Maine. The two of them are “friendly,” Lucy tells us, and as the initial days unfold, we watch them through Lucy’s eyes as they figure out how to share a confined space together. They mostly get along although William annoys Lucy at times: “It was during this time that I noticed that I hated William each night after dinner.” Lucy’s honesty comes shining through, and it is perhaps a sentiment that many readers can relate to, a feeling that they, too, had during lockdown. William and Lucy figure out how to get food, they make some friends, they take care of their daughters as well as they can from miles away.
Again and again, we see Lucy’s ability to interrogate and consider her thoughts, to be honest with herself and with the reader. She has a difficult time both understanding what is happening and getting through each day: “It was as though each day was like a huge stretch of ice I had to walk over.” She acknowledges that she calls out for her mother in times of great stress, not to the mother that she had, but to another: “Mom, I cried inside myself to the nice mother I had made up, Mom I can’t do this! And the nice mother I had made up said, You are really doing so well, honey.” This is such an intimate confession, one that somehow seems only possible in fiction, when we are able to truly know the inner thoughts of a character.
Lucy also uses her time in lockdown to think deeply and reflect on what is happening. There is a marvelous passage when she considers the fragility of life and the passage of time:
And thinking of this now made me think of something I had often thought before: that there had been a last time—when they were little—that I had picked up the girls. This had often broken my heart, to realize that you never know the last time you pick up a child. Maybe you say “Oh, honey, you’re getting too big to be picked up” or something like that. But then you never pick them up again.
And living with this pandemic was like that. You did not know.
Until I read this, I hadn’t quite thought of the pandemic in this distilled way: so much of the fear that we felt was because many of us simply didn’t know if we would see each other again. Or we may have lost family or friends without the opportunity to say goodbye and were left to scrabble back and try to remember: When was the last time we spoke? When were we last together? When did I last give her a hug goodbye? It’s Lucy’s honesty and Strout’s willingness to look at things directly that allows the reader clarity as well.
As the year goes on, Lucy and William experience much of what we all experienced that year. Friends and family die from the virus. Important life-changing things happen to their children, and they are not as able to be parents as they once were. There is sadness and grief and anger. Life mostly goes on, though, albeit in truncated form. Good things happen as well: Lucy gets a writing studio, for the first time ever, and she begins to write again. She and William get closer, and William reunites with a long-lost sister. They both get the vaccine. The natural world brings comfort, again and again and again.
Community brings comfort as well. Strout shows us this by not only showing how happy Lucy is to spend time with her new Maine friends, but also by bringing characters into the book from her other books. She has done this in the past: in Olive, Again (2019), for example, Olive becomes friends with Isabelle from Amy and Isabelle (1998). We originally meet Bob Burgess, in The Burgess Boys (2013), but he, too, is in Olive, Again and in Oh William! In Lucy by the Sea, Lucy hears about Olive and Amy through a mutual acquaintance. Bob Burgess becomes quite a good friend. They develop a real bond, and his quiet assertion that he would like her to stay in Maine becomes the real reason that she decides to leave New York with William and live in Maine permanently.
When Strout’s characters appeared in the earlier books, it occasionally felt a little odd, as though characters belonged in their own book world and shouldn’t be breaking into others. But here, it feels just right. It’s as though we need all the community we can get. The pandemic has shown us the fragility of life. Lucy gets pleasure out of a friendship with Bob Burgess, and we get pleasure out of these intersecting worlds, out of Strout’s ability to create these characters and communities that feel as real as any we know. As Lucy says, towards the end of the book: “We are all in lockdown, all the time. 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.” It seems for Lucy, and perhaps for Strout and perhaps for us all, that community is that thing that will help us get through to the end.