The fourth book in Elizabeth Strout’s Amgash tetralogy is Lucy by the Sea, a third novel in the Lucy Barton series, written in first person with Lucy as the narrator. This book was preceded by the novel My Name Is Lucy Barton, the linked short story collection Anything Is Possible, and the novel Oh, William. Lucy by the Sea was published on September 20, 2022, and takes place during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lucy is older now. Her ex-husband William is divorced (again) and spirits Lucy away to a house in Maine to escape the coming first wave in New York City. He tells Lucy it will only be for a few weeks, but he is a scientist, and Lucy gradually realizes he knows better.
The anxiety of the time Lucy is living through is present from the beginning of the novel: Lucy lets readers know up front that she will lose a friend and a family member to the virus. This establishes tension from the start as readers wonder and worry about who will die. She describes “The First Rescue Story” and “The Second Rescue Story,” observing from the outset that “neither rescue was successful,” which increases that tension.
By the end of the first chapter, Lucy realizes the seriousness of the situation and knows it will be more than weeks before she can go home again. She is upset to see what is happening in her beloved New York City and is angry that William has taken her so far from her home and her daughters. They begin a distant year of living together but living mostly separate lives. Lucy is unable to write or even to read as she slowly comes to terms with reality. She is glued to the news. “About my work I thought: I will never write another word again.”
From inside their bubble, Lucy observes what is happening in the world outside: George Floyd’s murder, the insurrection on January 6th, and the struggles of her own daughters. These are not spoilers—we all know what happened in 2020 and 2021. The book is full of observations about the pandemic, things we as readers already know, having lived through them ourselves and having come this far with no real or deeper understanding of any of it. As with everything Strout writes, I’m convinced this is intentional. How can we have a deeper understanding of these things when we are still living through them, still processing them? And Lucy is feeling as muddled about it as any of us. About her daughter, Lucy observes, “Chrissy … spoke mostly of her work with the ACLU, and I thought: She is not talking about anything real. And I think by that I mean that she was not talking about how she felt ….” But Lucy doesn’t share her feelings either, not really, other than when she is writing. It’s all too hard.
Lucy is troubled by all that she sees, but her observations feel too simplistic at times. For example, she writes about William leaving for a day to visit his ex-wife and daughter, and she says that, while he is gone, she realizes how her friends must feel who are living alone during the pandemic. It’s unlikely someone could truly feel what that’s like by spending one day alone, although I imagine what she meant is that it made her stop to consider her friends’ loneliness for the first time.
At one point, Lucy makes friends with a Trump supporter, and she believes she has come to an understanding of the problem—Trump supporters are angry because they can’t get ahead. Again, Lucy seems to simplify a complex situation without easy solutions. This is one aspect of it. And although she is aware of and heartbroken by the racism she sees in the world, she fails to fully connect it and other more complex elements to the conflict between an increasingly divided population. She is struggling to make sense of it all, to find the solution. Even more interestingly, she seems to believe there is a single solution.
At another point, Lucy learns that someone has said of her that she is “‘just an older white woman writing about older white women.’’ She is “stung” by the comment, “distressed,” “embarrassed.” Will Lucy write again? And if she does, will it make any difference? Here, I think Strout beautifully encapsulates the dilemma of writing from our own limited points of view, the hope that our writing will change lives and opinions, and the discouraging feeling that, often, it may not or cannot. From the beginning, in My Name Is Lucy Barton, Lucy expressed that she wanted to write so that others felt less alone. To that end, she writes from her own experience, and she has reached people and changed lives. She has made others feel less alone. She does what she can. And she continues to try to do better. Perhaps this is all any writer can do.
The experience of reading Lucy by the Sea was somewhat frustrating for me. I found myself exasperated by Lucy at times. But I am wondering what that says about me more than what it says about the book. In many ways, Lucy reminds me of me. Or at least a past me. I wanted to see the agency in her that I’d seen in her before—this is a woman who escaped extreme poverty to become a celebrated author. But expecting that much from anyone in the midst of a global pandemic is a tall order—the past couple of years knocked the resilience out of a lot of us. It was all many could do to survive, and tragically, so many did not.
Like the other books in the series, Lucy by the Sea has its own unique structure. After reading the first three books, I was excited to see what this book’s structure would be, and I was not disappointed. I won’t ruin that surprise for you. I am looking forward to a fifth book in the series, where Lucy truly overcomes her childhood trauma and finds every aspect of her voice and exercises all the agency. But Strout doesn’t give us easy, does she? She gives us real. And real is often painful and doesn’t end happily ever after, all tied up in a bow. Real doesn’t always come with easy solutions. Real is complex and convoluted and hard. For Lucy and for all of us.