When writers around the world were asked to contribute to an anthology on COVID-19, And We Came Outside and Saw the Stars Again, Majed Abusalama said the lockdown brought on by the virus was an experience he had lived through during the Intifada in Palestine years ago. The new normal was not really new for him.
In Elizabeth Strout’s new book Lucy by the Sea, the eponymous protagonist leaves New York in March 2020 just as the virus is beginning to take hold. Prodded on by her former husband, William, they escape to a rented home on the coast in Maine. As weeks turn to months, and they settle down to a routine with a complex past hovering over them, realisation dawns on Lucy that her whole childhood was a lockdown, and thereby hangs many a tale.
Strout has been chronicling the life of the New York writer from the first novel in the series, My Name is Lucy Barton. Three other novels complete the quartet, and the third, Oh William!, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2022. In the fourth, Lucy has just published her memoir, which is about mothers and daughters — but also about “trying to cross class lines”.
‘In lockdown, all the time’
Lucy had been brought up in desperate poverty in an abusive home; she and her siblings never saw anyone or went anywhere; it was always cold at home, and she stayed back in school each day just to keep warm. Even when Lucy grew up, moved away and became a mother and successful writer, the notion that she came from nothing refused to go away.
In Maine, William and Lucy look back at a fraught, anxious past, and both have lots to reflect on, secrets to share. Like the tumultuous world around them, their personal lives too have been a roller coaster, with shocks and upheavals. Strout’s mastery lies in enabling her characters to handle devastating circumstances with quiet fortitude and a resilience they didn’t know they had. “We are all in lockdown, all the time. We just don’t know it, that’s all. But we do the best we can. Most of us are just trying to get through,” thinks Lucy.
When the virus arrives, Lucy will have to think things afresh, though in the initial days the collective bewilderment felt by all is reflected in her admission that she did not see it coming. But William is a scientist and he not only read the danger signs early, he warned everyone, including their two married daughters, to get away as far as possible from New York. Lucy is sick with worry about her daughters as the pandemic begins to take lives. Their relationship also undergoes changes.
Olive Kitteridge’s cameo
Yet like a puppeteer, Strout never lets the characters or the story get ahead of themselves. We find connecting strands in the novel to her previous books: for instance, Olive Kitteridge (the protagonist of her eponymous 2009 Pulitzer-winning novel) makes an appearance at a retirement home here, making snide remarks at everyone. Lucy is flawed too: she doesn’t give up her turn in the queue to a needier person and there are instances of other failures.
Yet, Lucy constantly reflects on her past and present, and the things she could have done differently. She is grateful for her achievements: “It is a gift in this life that we do not know what awaits us.” She has a nice made-up mother she talks to in her mind who has told her, “Lucy, you trust yourself.”
Her other tropes to get by are love, empathy, and a constant nudge to oneself not to judge, increasingly becoming a tough ask in a world where there are deep ruptures, with people perpetually striving to bridge divides.
Lucy by the Sea