How long does it take to digest a global historical event and turn it into usable fiction? Many novelists in the past year or two have tried to answer this question by setting their stories in the depths of the Covid pandemic. It’s a tricky thing to get right, because you inevitably touch on a set of experiences in which your readers are expert – maybe even more expert than you. If you get a detail wrong, or miss the tone, they’ll know; they also might be tempted to say, well, that’s what it was like for you … but not for me. This is especially hard given that experiences of the pandemic range from the terrible tragedy to minor inconvenience.
All of this makes Elizabeth Strout’s new book, Lucy by the Sea, an impressive performance. Strout’s long-time narrator, Lucy Barton, is well suited to the moment. She survived extreme poverty and childhood trauma to become who she is – a novelist with an international reputation, living alone, after the failure of one marriage and the death of her second husband, in a small apartment in New York, just as the first signs of disease make themselves felt in the city.
This is the fourth of Strout’s Lucy Barton novels. In her previous one, Oh William! (TLSOctober 29, 2021), which was shortlisted for this year’s Booker prize, Lucy reunites with her first husband, William, following the end of his latest (third) marriage, and goes with him on a road trip to seek out ghosts from his past. Lucy by the Sea picks up shortly after this novel ends. William, a scientist, is trying to persuade Lucy to escape Manhattan and drive up with him to a house in Maine that he has rented indefinitely. He also convinces one of their two daughters to move out to Connecticut; the other insists on staying in Brooklyn. Lucy, slightly adrift, goes along reluctantly, partly because she can’t quite comprehend the scale of what is about to happen and partly because she hasn’t yet come to terms with this (chaste) new relationship with her ex-husband, who cheated on her repeatedly.
Strout, at her best, never strains towards plot creation. Everything that happens here (until, maybe, the final scenes) seems natural and normal, with the right amount of unusual baked in. Slowly, as they live together again, Lucy’s relationship with William changes – even as her memories of their marriage and its difficulties rising to the surface of her thoughts. Meanwhile, more or less stuck in the house, they live for the news they receive from the outside world: from friends and siblings going through similar transitions, who catch the virus and either die or don’t, and from their daughters, as first one and then the other faces a sudden crisis in her marriage.
Barton’s dominant mode as a narrator is a kind of carefully protected naivety. She uses naivety as Roth used irony, to say what the author wants to say and undercut it at the same time. One of the things she uses it for is to make you feel more strongly what everybody already knows. “As I gazed out the window of the car, I was amazed at what I saw. On both sides of the road was the ocean, but I had never seen an ocean like this one.” She applies the same simple wonder to her own reaction to the pandemic. Versions of “it’s odd” or “it’s” appear half a dozen times strange in the opening pages: “it’s odd how the mind does not take in anything until it can”; “What is strange as I look back is how I simply did not know what was happening”.
Sometimes this register seems less suited to the complexity of events. There is a brief reference to the killing of George Floyd and the street protests that followed: “I thought, ‘Oh God, they will all get sick.’ But I felt more than that. I understood the anger, I really did.” And there is another to the storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021, to which Lucy has a slightly more intimate response, since she sees herself, on some level, as someone straddling the great cultural divide in American life. She writes a story that is sympathetic to a Trump-supporting cop who commits an act of violence, then wonders if, in this climate, she should publish it. “Well”, William tells her, “it might help people understand each other.”
What you make of this novel depends to a large extent on your sympathies for its narrator. There are many wonderful passages, descriptions of the changing New England landscape, moments of real insight (Lucy, at one stage, comments that all of her dead have appeared to her in dreams, except for her much-loved second husband, until she thinks, “Oh, come on”), powerful depictions of families in flux. But Lucy by the Sea sometimes feels a little like a children’s story. Characters tend to be either one-note (good or bad), or two-note (alternately good and bad, with not much room in between). Lucy herself, like a child, measures her reactions simply. She either “hates” things or people, or “loves” them, and she sees this simplicity as a source of power. Twice the story turns on what can only be described as her psychic visions.
Of course, she is also meant to be a damaged and limited person; her awkward presence is part of the point. One sister, gravely ill with Covid, accuses Lucy of being “selfish” – for having escaped the poverty in which they grew up to become who she is, and removed herself from her roots and family in the process. And there are frequent references to her “negative” self-pitying tendencies, her slowness to comprehend, her failures of courage or generosity. But the tone of the novel, even though Lucy tells it, is on the whole quietly self-congratulatory: “You’re a spirit, Lucy”, William tells her. “You know things … There is no one else out there like you.” And she sees herself as a kind of instrument of pure feeling: “This is the question that has made me a writer; always that deep desire to know what it feels like to be a different person … It sounds very strange, but it is almost as though I could feel my molecules go into him and his come into me.”
Yet Lucy’s sense of other people has been largely shaped by her own experiences – specifically, her experience of trauma. Strout is brilliant at describing the slow accumulation of ordinary life, but doesn’t quite trust it to provide narrative momentum on its own. For that she relies on trauma, both in the past and in the promise of more to come. There are lots of little drum-roll foreshadowings: “If I had known what was in store for Becka…”; “I did not know that I would never see my apartment again…”. The people Lucy likes tend to be those who are willing to confess the terrible things that have shaped them. Her best friend in Maine is a man who, as a child, sat in a car that rolled down the driveway and killed his father. Another woman “spoke of her mother at length that evening, and I understood: This was [her] wound”.
Via Lucy, Elizabeth Strout presents a view of the world that equates suffering with authority and runs the risk of both sentimentalizing and simplifying it, and of defining people entirely by isolated events. This also explains why the author was so quick to leap on the narrative potential of the pandemic – a period in history when the tragic and domestic were forced into contact with each other on a scale never seen before. As Lucy explains her philosophy: “We are all in lockdown, all the time. We just don’t know it, that’s all.”
Benjamin Markovits’slatest novel,The Sidekickwas published in June
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