Lucy by the Sea, Elizabeth Strout. New York: Random House, 2022.
Summary: Lucy Barton goes with her ex-husband William to a house on the coast of Maine during the COVID lockdown of 2020.
On a premonition, Lucy Barton cancelled her book tour in Europe. Then her ex-husband William, a parasitologist, shows up at her apartment and insists that she pack up and leave with him to get out of New York City to an out of the way place in Maine. It is early March of 2020 and COVID-19 has arrived in New York City. William has followed the epidemic and can foresee what is in store. He wants to get Lucy and their daughters out of the city. Reluctantly, she closes up her place and goes with him to an old house with character on the coast of Maine, found for them by an old friend, Bob Burgess.
Much of the book is Lucy’s interior monologue. We go through those early weeks that we all remember of hearing of the rapidly climbing number of infections, of friends getting sick, of worries about family, particularly Lucy’s younger daughter, who wants to stay in New York with her loser boyfriend. We re-live socially distanced and masked encounters. And we remember lives reduced to daily routines of household life, Zoom calls, walks outdoors, punctuated by the news. At points, like many of us, Lucy wonders if she is losing her mind, or at least her memory. We relive that growing recognition both of how bad things were and that this wouldn’t be solved by a few weeks of lockdown.
Sharing a house with your ex raises all kinds of memories for both of them. William had gone on to a number of affairs and failed marriages. Chastened by age and health issues, he takes stock of all the failures in his life. For both of them, as they watch one daughter in an unhealthy relationship and another unable to have children and going through a rocky period in their marriage, they relive their own failed relationship as they try to offer what help parents can and cannot do, as they re-negotiate their relationships with their adult children, and with each other. I will leave you to find out how being in lockdown together works out for them.
Bob Burgess, whose wife is the town minister, becomes Lucy’s sounding board as they take walks together. Like so many of us, Lucy has to sort out all her feelings about those who don’t wear masks, including a sister who has converted to a conservative form of Christianity, who nearly dies but doesn’t. for all those who support the current president, for those who refuse the vaccine including a woman who she works with at a food pantry.
What is striking is that we see both her interior reactions and a posture of listening, of just trying to understand and not change. Coming to terms with some of the wounds of her own past, she finds herself in a place of gentleness with others, something I wish I could have achieved at times during this period.
Strout portrays people who grew during the isolation of lockdown. They examined their own and other’s flawed and broken and yet unique lives, and the efforts to love as best as they could. They nurtured relationships even as it appeared the country was trying to tear itself apart.
This is not a book to read if you don’t want to relive those years. But I found that the reading reminded me of my own journey of trying to make sense of our radically changed lives and country. And I got to do this with this delightful woman, Lucy Barton. I wonder to what degree she is an alter ego of Elizabeth Strout. What I do know is that I’ve loved her Olive Kitteridge books and this as well (Olive makes a kind of cameo appearance!). And there was the delightful discovery, in writing this review, that there are several previous Lucy Barton books. You can bet that I will be on the lookout for them!