Sequel to Booker Prize shortlisted Oh, William! weaves in big US events such as the killing of George Floyd and the Joe Biden vs Donald Trump election
Towards the end of Lucy by the Sea, Elizabeth Strout’s latest novel, the eponymous Lucy observes: “We are all in lockdown, all the time. We just don’t know it, that’s all”.
The preceding 284 pages are such an accurate, albeit fictional, account of year one of the pandemic that there will be people who can’t bear to read this book and relive those 12 months. But such are the many universal truths contained within its pages – such as the above quote – that it would be a shame to dismiss it.
Strout’s huge following multiplied this year with her shortlisting for the Booker Prize (the winner of which will be announced on October 17) for Oh, William! a sequel to her earlier novel My Name is Lucy Barton. Lucy by the Sea continues with the same characters.
However as Strout deftly weaves into the narrative the earlier plotlines, it’s not essential to have read My Name is Lucy Barton, in which our narrator reflects on her deprived childhood, the cloak of shame that is poverty, the abuse she and her siblings suffered at their mother’s hands and how she managed to extricate herself by getting an education.
Oh William! takes place some years later. Lucy and her first husband William Gerhardt, a parasitologist, have divorced because of his multiple affairs; he has remarried twice and Lucy once, then when her much-loved husband David dies, and coincidentally William’s wife Estelle leaves him, William asks Lucy to help him explore his roots and it transpires his background is not the uncomplicated privileged upbringing he had been led to believe.
In Lucy by the Sea, when the pandemic hits and scientist William sees how it could destroy his family, he immediately makes arrangements for them all to leave New York. He rents a seaside house in Maine in New England from an old lawyer friend and he and Lucy take refuge there.
Many incidents contained within the narrative will be familiar; the way Lucy didn’t take her laptop because she thought her absence from home would be short-lived, and how she thought William was being alarmist, the way watching the news – seeing endless people on ventilators, and hearing horrifying death statistics – became the event of the day.
Strout chronicles the washing of the clothes after the supermarket trip, and the new phrases which became our everyday language. Lucy’s gentle, reclusive brother tells her “I’ve been socially distancing for 66 years”.
Then there’s the suspicion among Maine locals of the New Yorkers: William removes the car’s New York number plates to lessen hostility. And the fear, the endless fear of other people, and of the virus.
Strout’s insight elevates the story to a far higher plane
She also weaves in big American events, such as the killing of George Floyd, the storming of Capitol Hill and the Biden/Trump election. Class, poverty and shame – old Strout themes – are explored against the backdrop of the pandemic.
Lucy’s family and friends don’t escape the virus unscathed; some get ill, some take stupid risks, and of course there are the virus deniers, and there are many poignant moments throughout the book but the characters adapt and life goes on.
On the face of it, Lucy by the Sea could be read as just an absorbing account of that awful first year, with many family dilemmas – miscarriages, romances, family feuds and affairs – laid bare. It’s also an interesting reflection on isolation and loneliness.
However Strout’s insight, perspicacity and extraordinary understanding of human nature elevates the story to a far higher plane, exploring our vulnerabilities, our deepest needs and what it is to be human.
‘Lucy by the Sea’ by Elizabeth Strout, Penquin Viking, €15.99