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Book Talk! “Lucy by the Sea”


Who among you is eager to read a novel that begins at the outset of the COVID pandemic? Neither was I, until I discovered Lucy by the Sea (Random House). The “Lucy” referred to in the title is Lucy Barton, the main character first introduced by Pulitzer Prize winning author Elizabeth Strout in the appropriately titled My Name is Lucy Barton, published in 2016.

Lucy, a novelist living in Manhattan, has suffered her share of setbacks in life, the most devastating being the untimely death of her second husband following the dissolution of a 20-year marriage to William, who has since remarried, twice, and is currently separated from his third wife.

Through it all, Lucy and William have remained friends, and when William, a scientist, becomes aware of the onset of the COVID pandemic and foresees the potentially devastating effect it is almost certain to have on his world and the lives of those around him, he implores Lucy to leave her circumscribed life in Manhattan and accompany him to the relative safety of coastal Maine.

Lucy knows her own mind and is not easily convinced, but she trusts her instincts. She begins to understand the danger she faces if she remains within the confines of the city and the comfort of the routine that has served to help her work through the grief she is suffering from her loss.

In the hands of a less gifted author, Lucy’s decision to accompany William to Maine could well have been overwrought and over dramatized. Instead of soap opera, we are treated to Lucy’s spare, straightforward, unsentimental dialogue. It’s by being privy to Lucy’s inner dialogue, the literary equivalent of breaking the fourth wall, through which we develop an intimate understanding of Lucy and her situation; “...I did think it (Maine) was beautiful...It was like a foreign country to me. Except, in truth foreign places always frighten me. I like places that are familiar.”

Strout’s spare writing style carries through to the conclusion of Lucy by the Sea, and is well-suited to the loneliness, social and emotional isolation, disconnection from her friends, family and her late husband for whom she still grieves. And lest we envy what to many of us would be an idyllic, though involuntary, lockdown by the sea, through Lucy’s keen power of observation we experience the insular lives of those who have chosen this life and their distrust and even hostility toward out-of-staters.

Removed from their comfort zones, Lucy and William undergo a gradual process of rediscovery and reinvention as they are forced to reexamine their 20-year marriage and ongoing friendship. Strout touchingly portrays Lucy’s rich and complex relationship with William, who’s only concern, at least at first, is to save her and her family.

Lucy and William gradually adapt to their new surroundings, make friends, begin to feel at home. Their isolation only seems to intensify their awareness of the dueling issues of connection, isolation and insulation and of horrific events happening in America; the murder of George Floyd, the January 6th insurrection. Attending a reunion at her alma mater 40 years on, Lucy finds her former classmates to be “...smug, clueless, privileged...”

Through Lucy, Strout eloquently describes what many of us felt in the darkest days of the pandemic, as we masked up and made fraught trips to the supermarket; “...It was as though each day was a stretch of ice I had to walk though the world had become a different landscape and I had to make it through each day without knowing when it would stop.”

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