Lucy By the Sea returns faithful readers of Elizabeth Strout’s novels to familiar people and places. It’s 2020 and Lucy’s ex-husband William tells her to pack and come with him. Unlike Lucy, he has been paying attention to the news and knows COVID is about to overtake New York City in previously unimaginable ways. They drive up to Maine and shelter there. In this slight book, Strout manages to capture the whole of the COVID experience. The fraught solitude, the fear of New Yorkers bringing sickness with them, the flagrant fecklessness of those who think COVID can’t touch them, and the strain on relationships when people spend too much time together without relief in sight. Or,, how people can come together in generosity and compassion.
William is determined to save his family and that includes his ex-wife Lucy, He makes arrangements for his adult children and his other ex-wife and daughter to make sure they take the pandemic seriously and survive. His son-in-law is immune-compromised and when he learns that his daughter’s in-laws are coming back from Florida to move back into their house, he drives down to confront them as they arrive and insist they stay elsewhere and then turns around and drives home. He understands the dangers of COVID while so many others do not.
There is something dream-like about Lucy By the Sea. But there was an unreality to the silence and solitude of the early pandemic, before there were vaccines. A lot of people thought the shutdown would give them time to do projects they always planned to do, to write more, read more, to paint, to plant a garden, and so on. Yet there was this ennui, avid readers reported reading less, writers could not write. And Strout captures this with Lucy whose days pass in a bit of a muddle, not writing, taking walks or staring out to sea.
This is not “the” pandemic novel. I imagine that would be one more like Susan Straight’s Mecca with a family with at least one or two essential workers who have to navigate the fear of exposure or with a family that didn’t have the wealth that allowed them to flee from New York City to a rural haven in Maine. But this does capture the ennui of isolation that most of us felt during 2020.
I received an e-galley of Lucy By the Sea from the publisher through NetGalley.