Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout: ‘This is how we lived. It was strange’  

Ciover image for Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth StroutUnusually for me, I had mixed feelings when I saw a new Elizabeth Strout in the schedules: Lucy by the Sea is Lucy Barton’s third outing, the second in a year, and it’s a pandemic novel. I wondered if she was becoming little overexposed but knew I’d read it anyway. Lucy and her ex-husband, William, spend the first year of the pandemic in Maine where Lucy’s life, like many others, is changed in surprising sometimes shocking ways.

It’s odd how the mind does not take in anything until it can.

William is quick to see which way the wind is blowing as Covid grips Europe, whisking the sceptical Lucy off to the coastal town of Crosby where his friend, Bob Burgess, has found them a house to rent. Lucy is convinced they’ll be back in New York in a few weeks but William thinks they’re in for a long haul, ensuring that both their daughters are safely away from the city, too. It’s only a year since these two bumped into each other shortly after Lucy was widowed and William’s wife left him. Things are a little scratchy at first, but they settle into a routine, each taking their separate walks, Lucy making a surprising friend in Bob, and another, some months later, in Charlene with whom she volunteers at the local foodbank. Lucy misses her daughters, frets over Becka’s marriage and Chrissy’s fertility problems, grieves the loss of people she loves and comes to understand herself, William and their country a little better. William, meanwhile, takes on the practicalities of their new life with alacrity and finds his way to an unexpected reconciliation and contentment. By the end of the novel a surprising decision will have been made, doubts voiced, and an understanding reached.

There was a sense of the physical world opening its hand to us, and it was beautiful. And it helped.

As ever, Strout’s writing is empathetic and insightful, expressed in a sober, understated style making it all the more effective. She summons up that strange, unreal time when many of us, like Lucy, didn’t know what had hit us nor had an inkling how long we would remain in the introspective, claustrophobic bubble of lockdown before vaccinations offered us freedom. While Lucy loses her concentration, eventually finding an unaccustomed solace in nature, William enthusiastically throws himself back into his scientific research. There’s a more overt political strand than in previous Strout novels as Lucy thinks about Trump supporters, can hardly bare to watch the insurrection on TV and frets about the spread of Covid during the Black Lives Matter protests. For Strout fans, there’s the accustomed pleasure of recurring characters, including a few mentions of Olive Kitteridge, Crosby being her hometown. Any doubts about Lucy’s third outing were quickly dispelled for me. If anything, I found this a more interesting novel than the Booker shortlisted Oh, William! and My Name is Lucy Barton.

Viking: London 9780241606995 304 pages Hardback (Read via NetGalley)

22 thoughts on “Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout: ‘This is how we lived. It was strange’  ”

    1. I’d say not. Strout is so good at quietly sketching in backstories, helpfully reminding those of us who’ve read the previous novels but are not blessed with perfect memories, which would make them work as standalone..

  1. I know you’re a big Elizabeth Strout fan, so was surprised to read about your initial reservations, though I understand them. I have only read the first Lucy Barton book which I really enjoyed but I think I preferred the two Olive Kitteridge books I read really.

  2. So pleased to hear how successful this was for you given your reservations. I definitely shared them – a pandemic novel, a third outing so soon for Lucy – so I’m glad to have them dispelled by your review. I’ve not read Oh William! yet but I’m looking forward to it and to this.

  3. Hard to believe, but this is actually the 4th Lucy novel. I enjoyed the 1st, skipped the 2nd, had mixed feelings about the 3rd, and would have thought about skipping this one as well, but I have a habit now of reading most Covid books I come across (more so the memoirs, but I’ll also consider the fiction). So I’ve placed a hold on this one through the library.

  4. I’ve never read any of her books. I’m assuming I need to read the other two first for this to be enjoyed as much as. I shall have to look into all three of them and ponder if I should devote time to them.

    1. Olive Kitteridge is my absolute favourite of all Strout’s books, Janet, but if you wanted to read the Lucy series I don’t think you’d need to read all of them in order to enjoy them. She’s very good at sketching in characters’ backstories. Handy for those of us whose memories aren’t as good as they used to be!

  5. Strout is on a roll with Lucy. One of these days I hope to read them all in a row – like one big novel.

    It’s interesting to think about how world events are recorded forever in novels. I know it’s always been happening, but I feel like the last few years have really made it more obvious.

    (P.S. I am so behind on your blog!)

    1. That would be a treat! I swore I’d avoid pandemic novels which, of course, I failed to do but it’s interesting being reminded of how strange that time was as we all click back into our everyday lives. Happy to hear from you but life is busy so only when you have time!

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