Review by David Starkey
I’m not quite sure why I love Elizabeth Strout’s new novel, Lucy by the Sea, as well as its predecessor, Oh William! as much as I do. At times, Strout’s first-person narration—direct, yet quirkily repetitive—reminds me of a combination of Hemingway and Vonnegut, with perhaps a soupçon of a depressed Erma Bombeck somewhere in the mix. Not necessarily a recipe for great prose, but it somehow works. And some of the things she remarks on—the fact that flossing her teeth in front of her ex-husband grosses him out, or her joy in unclogging a stopped bathtub—seem less than scintillating. Yet it’s her faithfulness to the very dailiness of life that ultimately makes Lucy Barton—and her creator—so appealing.
In last year’s Oh William! we were reintroduced to novelist Lucy Barton (of 2016’s I Am Lucy Barton)and her ex-husband William, a charming, irascible cheater who still carries a torch for Lucy, despite his many infidelities. In Oh William!—the title is one of Lucy’s classic repeated phrases—William was floundering after being left by his third wife, and Lucy more or less came to his rescue, helping him navigate his difficult past, in particular the fact that his mother had abandoned her first family without ever mentioning it to her son. Lucy by the Sea begins not long afterwards, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, with William, a microbiologist, whisking Lucy away to an isolated house on the Maine coast to avoid either of them becoming infected. There, Lucy encounters— by reputation or in person—a number of characters from Strout’s previous novels, most notably Olive Kitteridge and Bob Burgess, who becomes one of her closest friends.
Publishing novels with the same characters in back-to-back years gives the books, especially Lucy by the Sea, a diaristic feel. We know that if anything of note—no matter how minor—occurs in the protagonist’s life, we are going to hear about it. Thus, in addition to the flossing and clogged bathtub incidents, we witness Lucy visiting an old cemetery where a number of people died during the influenza pandemic; we find out that her daughter Becka is looking taller than usual because the soles of her sneakers are so thick; we check in with Charlene Bibber, one of Olive Kitteridge’s caretakers, who worries that she is losing her mind; and we learn that the Maine waves have two distinct registers: “a deep ongoing sound that was quietly massive, and there was also the sound of the water hitting the rocks; always this was thrilling to me.” It if seems like a jumble of facts and incidents, that muddle is appropriate for the early pandemic mindset: it seemed impossible to tell when, or if, anything was ever going to make sense again.
While she can be annoying at times, Lucy is mostly sympathetic in her lack of self-confidence and constant worrying. In one scene, she recalls visiting a creative writing class where the students were absolutely uninterested in her or anything she had to say: “To this day I do not understand what went wrong, but the teacher was unable to get them to talk to me, and for an entire hour we sat in that classroom almost in silence, and I thought: It is like my entire life’s work has turned into a small pile of ashes on this table. My humiliation was so deep, it seemed to go straight through all of me into my feet.” Every visiting writer has probably faced some version of this scenario, but it’s especially telling for Lucy, because, despite her publishing success, and her access to wealth (William inherited a fortune from his Nazi grandfather), her childhood poverty has made her wary of good fortune, and fearful that it will be taken away from her at any time.
Perhaps that fear is what makes Lucy’s dedication to recording everything in her life so moving—it’s as though if she does not get her experiences down in words, they may turn into “a small pile of ashes” and blow away. If Lucy by the Sea sometimes seems haphazard in its plotting, the actual experience of reading its pages is addictive. To paraphrase W. H. Auden, “though one cannot always remember why one has been happy…reading this novel, there is no forgetting that one was.”