It was inevitable that the COVID lockdown entered the realm of fiction: after all, it is an historic event and to be honest, I was rather interested to see how authors incorporated the many aspects of life during COVID into novels. That brings me to Elizabeth Strout’s Lucy by the Sea, a seemingly child-like title which belies the reality… or does it?
Lucy is a reappearing character in several Strout novels: My Name is Lucy Barton (have to backtrack to read this one), Anything is Possible, and Oh, William. In Oh, William, Elizabeth Strout gave us a first hand look at the after-marriage of Lucy Barton and her X-William. In that novel, writer Lucy Barton, freshly widowed from her second husband, becomes embroiled in the life of her self-focused X when his much-younger wife, unsurprisingly, moves onto fresher pastures. William is a Dickhead. Selfish, self-focused, not, I suppose a ‘bad’ man, but in his prime a serial adulterer who now aged 70 seems as little aware of the damage he caused as when he had numerous affairs.
Lucy by the Sea takes us to COVID lockdown. Lucy, like many people, hears about the virus tangentially in the news but William, who after all is/was a scientist, takes the news very seriously indeed and drives Lucy to a rental house in Maine for the duration. This is not an action novel by any means–instead this is Lucy’s tale as she sits out the virus–until vaccination time that is. So it’s a novel about waiting, watching the news and missing loved ones. In other words, this is a relatable novel. Bob Burgess makes an appearance as a supporting character. He helps arrange the Maine rental, and when the situation allows, he and his wife Margaret visit Lucy and William, maintaining social distance of course. For Lucy, this period takes on a dream like-quality. Watching the news, seeing the deaths, from a safe distance, seems almost surreal. Lucy and William’s two daughters Chrissy and Becka, each have their own crises during lockdown and Lucy cannot run to their sides to help. She can only wait for news at a distance. Bob Burgess (The Burgess Boys) is a kindred spirit to Lucy and helps with William and Lucy’s Maine transition.
In Oh, William, a highly enjoyable read, a great deal of the delight came from Lucy’s observations of William, a selfish sod whose world consists of two daughters, ex-wife Lucy and his much younger wife and third daughter who have just left him. William’s two adult daughters and Lucy seem to spend a great deal of time worrying about William–a man whose self-focus guarantees he puts himself first. In Lucy by the Sea, William appears to be thinking of someone else for a change.
When I read the synopsis of the novel, I thought Poor Lucy… imagine being in lockdown with that prick for a year.. but Elizabeth Strout chooses not to play the novel that way. I had imagined them driving each other crazy, and while that does happen to a mild degree, lockdown pushes William into protective mode, and brings panic attacks to Lucy. What happened to William’s dickheadedness? Or does COVID bring out the best in William–at last? Is his desire to ‘save’ Lucy sincere or is her just using COVID to control her? Strout does a wonderful job of recreating a COVID lockdown experience (many varieties exist): the ennui, the feeling of suspended animation, the heartbreak of being unable to have physical contact with family, and the bitter crunch of being housebound 24/7 with someone whose habits drive you around the bend. At some point, I became disappointed with the plot, but I came to that conclusion too soon. Ultimately, Elizabeth Strout did not disappoint me. There’s a wonderful scene with William and Lucy in which William confesses that he wished he had lived his life better:
“Oh Lucy, come on. I sit here and think over my life , and I think, Who have I been? I have been an idiot.”
“In what way?”
I asked him. And interestingly he answered first about his profession. “I have taught student after student after student, but did I make a real contribution to science? No.”
I opened my mouth, but he held up his hand to stop me.
“And on a personal level, look how I have lived my life.” I thought he must have been talking about his affairs. But he was not.
Lucy had a terrible childhood, and now in her 60s, she is, to this reader, surprisingly childlike. That kind of abuse creates permanent damage, yet somehow Lucy is cocooned by her belief in the beauty of the world. In her head she has created an imaginary mother–a loving kind mother who supports her and comforts her. It’s a great coping mechanism. Lucy is a believable character because she is so consistent. She never acts outside of the character created by Strout. To this reader, Lucy is remarkable because she is so good in spite of all her horrible experiences. But, at the same time, even though Lucy is good and believable, she is a little vanilla. Lucy is an observer of the world more than anything, and she is a passive character. In Oh, William, William’s dickheadedness added spike and spice to the plot, and there were times when even Lucy got sick of him. Olive Kitteridge appears in the sidelines and there were times I longed for Olive’s acidic tongue. She would make short work of William.
There’s a sequel here. I know it. And the big boom is coming.