BOOK REVIEW: LUCY BY THE SEA by Elizabeth Strout – December 2022

Reviewed by Jane Tompkins

In Lucy by the Sea, the sequel to Oh, William (reviewed here last year), Strout has once again adopted a plain, down-to-earth manner. The speaker sounds neither highly educated nor very articulate, but comes across as an ordinary person with no claim to being special. If anything, the tone is more flat-footed than ever. But the enterprise is not pedestrian.

This time, Strout uses her style as a tool to dig down to the very bottom of her experience, allowing her to convey without the slightest authorial flourish what, exactly, that experience was. She registers her feelings in such a straightforward way that we have to believe her, and in a form so raw that it defies interpretation or commentary. Certainly, she offers none. But around each blunt description there hangs an air of mute challenge, as if to say, what do you make of that, smarty pants? Her refusal to analyze or draw conclusions challenges us to try. Whether or not there is a meaning, we don’t know.

The story concerns an aging woman novelist who’s been “rescued” by her ex-husband, William (of Oh, William), from the depredations of the corona virus which has just hit Manhattan where they both maintain apartments. A biomedical researcher who presumably knows what’s what, he scoops her up and takes her to a house he’s rented on the coast of Maine where they hole up until the pandemic subsides. Both are single. William has been left by his third wife, and Lucy’s second husband, for whom she is still in mourning, died a year back.

At first, Lucy’s misery as she lives through the freezing Winter alone with her ex, longing for Manhattan, dominates the narrative. The highlights of her day are a walk to the beach in the morning and another long walk in the afternoon. Her successful career as a novelist plays a very small role in her account of herself. After a while, William rents a studio for her in town where she can go to write and that provides relief from her sense of imprisonment and isolation, but it’s peripheral to her main concerns.

While William and Lucy are in Maine, their elder daughter becomes pregnant, then has a series of miscarriages, becomes estranged from her husband and wants to have an affair with another man; the younger daughter, who has been doing social work, breaks up with her boyfriend and not long after that is admitted to Yale Law School. Lucy’s deep attachment to her daughters make her vulnerable to the piercing joy and wrenching sorrow that come up in response to the changes in their lives. There’s nothing she can do. From time to time, though, she is penetrated by a feeling of vacancy. In Maine:

I began to feel a sense of nothingness, which is the only way I can explain it. I sat and looked outside the windows, but I could not feel much.

On making a return visit to the city as the pandemic dies down:

. . . There were no taxis, as I had thought there might not be. So I walked around the station and on the other side was one taxi and he took me where I was staying.

An emptiness had come into me.

And again:

I sat in Central Park and saw the flowering bushes and the leaves that were already out and I watched people go by, there were many. But I felt nothing.

It may be that the blankness of the style and the lack of commentary on events reflect this emptiness. Occasionally Lucy delivers pronouncements—“grief is a private matter,” “everyone needs to feel important”—that don’t add up to much, but the earnestness with which she insists on them indicates a desire to pass on any tidbit of wisdom she might have. She is modest, humble, even, when it comes to making statements about life.

Her no-frills account of things exactly as they occur, the impassive registry of her own responses, her acceptance of circumstances as they unfold and refusal to pretend that things are better, or worse, than they are bespeak a kind of heroism. It may be that, approaching the final phase of her life, Strout has decided to jettison everything not absolutely necessary to doing a writer’s job, paring away the inessential not only in language but in life. She has no claim to having found “the truth,” but takes whatever the universe is offering her and sets it down with no fuss—even when it’s nothing.~