Lucy by the Sea, the most recent book by Elizabeth Strout, elegantly but inadequately accomplishes this aim. Strout, one of the greatest living American authors, is renowned for her exquisite, enduring prose, which has been compared to Shaker furniture. Despite the fact that Strout usually discusses current events, her work frequently appears to be completely unrelated to current literary trends. Lucy by the Sea is an exception to this rule, if only because it is one of the early COVID-focused books. The book may have the sense of a time capsule since Strout captures the first year of the epidemic in such meticulous detail.
The protagonist of two of Strout’s earlier books, My Name Is Lucy Barton and Oh William!, as well as a frequently referenced character in another, Anything Is Possible, Lucy, is whisked away from Manhattan in the book’s opening pages by her ex-husband William, a scientist who anticipates the virus’s impending devastation. Lucy, who is mourning the loss of her second husband, allows William to take her away to coastal Maine, where she witnesses COVID-19 wreaking havoc in New York. The seclusion of lockdown begins to profoundly alter Lucy’s life, as well as the lives of her close friends, Chrissy and Becka, her adult daughters.
One of the earliest COVID books in which the pandemic is clearly fundamental, rather than appearing to have been introduced in the middle, is Lucy by the Sea. In actuality, its early chapters may read less like a fiction and more like a description of how the epidemic initially seemed and felt to those of us who were fortunate enough to be able to seek safety inside. At first, Lucy, like myself and so many other people, is resistant to alter her behaviour. She questions William’s sanity as they travel to Maine because he pumps gas while wearing plastic gloves. Within a few weeks, she witnesses New York’s rapid explosion with a ghastliness that she finds “nearly impossible to take in” on television.
Her shock and numbness are so familiar. Many Americans shared a similar experience with the pandemic’s beginning. It also implies that Strout is providing readers a narrative they may already be familiar with rather than guiding them into the particulars and peculiarities of someone else’s experience, as fiction can do so expertly. The peculiarities and chaotic shapes of Lucy’s existence don’t really start to show up until much later in the book, along with the book’s genuine capacity to examine absence and mourning.
Both of these dynamics are present in one of the book’s greatest opening sequences. It starts with Lucy sitting in William’s automobile, which still has New York licence plates, in a parking lot in Maine. When told that a lady had yelled at her to “get the hell out of our state,” William doesn’t seem to care. He replies that he’s just too worn out from worrying that she’ll die from the coronavirus to additionally be bothered about “some woman [who] shouted at you,” when Lucy confronts him about his seeming lack of interest.The moment’s layered detail is devastating. It does, of course, make reference to a specific obstacle of pandemic life—the class conflict and urban-rural tension that were created when New Yorkers like Lucy and William evacuated for areas like coastal Maine—but the story is not about that struggle. It concerns Lucy’s incapacity to comprehend enormous love and William’s difficulty to convey his emotions in a way that Lucy can grasp.
But that kind of conversation is unusual. Predominant are other, more common epidemic scenes. Lucy takes many lonely walks because she dislikes how William, who does the cooking, “made a mess in the kitchen” and “wanted a lot of credit for every dish he produced.” Such responses to the epidemic or to sharing a space with another person in extraordinary circumstances are not rare. In truth, these scenes aren’t about Lucy and William in the same sense that the “Get the hell out of Maine” sequence is because of how familiar they are to the audience. Lucy’s complaints about William’s sloppy cooking don’t help us understand her more; they made me think of,a little too vividly, of the day in 2020 when my lover gently warned me that he would lose it if I didn’t start doing the dishes.
It can be difficult to follow Lucy and William’s odd relationship—being imprisoned alongside your ex-husband isn’t exactly common—or even to recognise them as the meticulously formed characters that they are in Lucy by the Sea since there are so many instantly recognised instances. After the nation had largely resumed its normal operations quite late in the novel, Lucy muses to herself, “The childhood solitude of terror and loneliness will never leave me. My early years had been on lockdown. However, Lucy’s solitude during the early epidemic does not seem to have been influenced by her history.
That attempt to find common ground is undoubtedly deliberate. Strout’s goal appears to include reminding us of how our spring of 2020 felt, or even giving us the impression that Lucy is reliving it with us. However, Lucy’s sense of being alone and of not having someone to live with her is a major theme of the book. This propensity caused problems during her marriage to William. Though initially concealed by her global numbness, it cuts her off from him in Maine.
Additionally, it briefly hides the fact that William and Lucy are unable to have a true dialogue because they are both ensnared in what Lucy perceives as the solitude of mourning. William is in grief over his recent divorce, which has diminished his vigour combined with his struggle with prostate cancer. While this is happening, neither William’s intense love for Lucy, which may have been reawakened by the divorce, nor a number of developing friendships will lessen Lucy’s yearning for her deceased husband or the loss she feels as her girls start to depend less and less on her. Their father, William, may be able to relate to Lucy’s perception that she has become unimportant to the lives of their daughters if she expressed this with him, but she doesn’t. Almost infrequently does Lucy share.
It also momentarily conceals the reality that Lucy and William are unable to have a meaningful conversation because they are both caught up in what Lucy interprets as the loneliness of grieving. In addition to his battle with prostate cancer, William is grieving over his recent divorce, which has made him less energised. While this is going on, neither William’s strong affection for Lucy, which the divorce may have reawakened, nor a number of growing friendships can reduce Lucy’s longing for her departed husband or the loss she feels as her girls begin to rely less and less on her.If Lucy had discussed this with their father, William, he may be able to empathise to her feeling that she has lost her place in their girls’ lives, but she doesn’t. Sharing is something Lucy does hardly seldom.
Successful novels that address a widespread occurrence like the pandemic sometimes rely on the interaction between the historical and the personal. Later on, Lucy by the Sea also achieves such harmony. The boundaries of that solitude begin to erode as Lucy realises that she and William are imprisoned within their own private griefs. They start talking more about the epidemic and their girls, making both topics dynamic, living parts of their relationship. The book then moves on to explore Lucy’s life throughout the epidemic in less instantly familiar detail.Lucy begins to make deliberate, outward decisions, like whether to volunteer at the neighbourhood food bank or whether to support her sister’s desire to attend a church where no one wears a mask. Strout’s pandemic is transformed into Lucy’s pandemic, which is unusual, solitary, and as peculiar as any other person’s. When that occurs, the book starts to loosen up and ultimately becomes as insightful and unique as any novel can be.