Less than a year after the third book in what has come to be known as the Amgash series, “Oh William!,” was published to great acclaim, Elizabeth Strout is back with a new installment, “Lucy by the Sea.” The title’s buoyant coziness is belied by the book’s unflinching account of 60-something writer Lucy Barton’s life during the COVID-19 pandemic. In its emotional heft and honesty, its ability to go fearlessly to the darkest places, its pellucid empathy and its spot-on rendering of the pandemic experience for both individuals and the country, it is perhaps the best of the four marvelous novels Strout has written featuring Lucy Barton.
Very early on, Lucy makes it clear that we will be reading about a radically transformative epoch in her life. She announces on Page 12 that her “relationship with [her] daughters will change in ways [she] could never have anticipated,” that a close friend and a family member “will die of the virus,” that she will “never see [her] apartment again,” that her “entire life …[will] become something new.” The novel that follows is the story of how and why these events and losses and metamorphoses occur.
It’s March 2020 in New York City, and Lucy’s first husband, William, recently dumped by his third wife, swoops in to rescue Lucy from what he correctly perceives to be a catastrophic situation in the making; he insists on driving her up to a house he’s rented for them on the Maine coast. Lucy, “not all that concerned” about the coronavirus, is baffled by his sense of urgency and the boxes of surgical masks and gloves he brings on the trip.
After arriving at the drafty house, Lucy is cold, uncomfortable, and confused. She considers William’s insistence that they quarantine for two weeks “alarmist” and doesn’t understand the severity of the unfolding pandemic. But as she hears about refrigerated trucks filling the streets and friends and acquaintances in the city getting sick and dying, as she watches the news and sees that “New York City [has] suddenly exploded with a ghastliness” of illness and death, she realizes what a close call she had.
Lucy is at once bewildered and bereft. She still grieves the loss of her second husband, David, a year earlier. She can’t read or write, and finds herself exhausted yet unable to rest, irritated by William, and distraught with worry about their daughters, Becka and Chrissy, who both live in Brooklyn. Competent, take-charge William eventually arranges for them to leave the city, too, as determined to save their lives as he was Lucy’s.
The pandemic prompts Lucy’s reckoning with the worth of her life, her career, her performance as a mother. Startling revelations — her “whole childhood was a lockdown” — give her perspective both clarifying and terrifying. William, Becka, and Chrissy, too, undergo moral and personal accountings. Gradually, breakthroughs occur, and Lucy achieves a “strange compatibility” with William.
Beloved characters from Strout’s previous work make cameo appearances in all their thorny, complicated glory. Bob Burgess from “The Burgess Boys” and “Olive, Again” becomes a close friend and companion to Lucy; Olive Kitteridge is mentioned several times.
Reuniting with familiar characters and stories is a pleasure “Lucy by the Sea” offers Strout stalwarts, but new readers will find the novel engrossing, too. Strout provides all the back-stories and histories we’ll need, refreshing the memories of dedicated fans, deftly bringing new readers up to speed.
We have the sense that Lucy is confiding in us, admitting to things she wouldn’t tell those closest to her, bringing her uncomfortable emotions, flaws, and less admirable actions to us with unsparing honesty. “I am not proud to say this,” she prefaces one confession. She shares with us feelings “hidden very deep inside” her and her “terrible private anguish” about her girls calling her less and “moving away from” her emotionally. The intimacy Strout creates between narrator and reader is both comforting and challenging as she takes us into the human heart by which Lucy lives — its tenderness, its joys, and fears — and gives us thoughts too deep for tears.
The murder of George Floyd, the 2020 presidential election, Jan. 6 — all of these cataclysmic events are discussed by the novel’s characters, and their effects resound through the story, always in subtle and surprising ways. Strout is never preachy or didactic. At one point, Lucy looks at a white police officer and wonders what he is thinking and feeling. “This,” she tells us, “is the question that has made me a writer; always that deep desire to know what it feels like to be a different person.” She goes on to write a story about his life.
Lucy encounters the spectrum of pandemic personalities: obsessive Lysol wipers and hand washers, anti-vaxxers, social distancers, COVID skeptics and COVID deniers. Some breeze through their illness, others succumb to it. All along, she works to connect with others across boundaries of political party and beliefs about vaccination and masking. The rare moments of solidarity and understanding she achieves with those very different from her are deeply moving.
No novelist working today has Strout’s extraordinary capacity for radical empathy, for seeing the essence of people beyond reductive categories, for uniting us without sentimentality. I didn’t just love “Lucy by the Sea”; I needed it. May droves of readers come to feel enlarged, comforted, and genuinely uplifted by Lucy’s story.
LUCY BY THE SEA
By Elizabeth Strout
Random House, 304 pages, $28
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.”