It’s early March and Lucy Barton’s ex-husband William – she still loves him but they’ve lived apart since they were married – calls her to say he wants to get her out of New York. They will go to a friend’s empty beach house in Maine “just for a few weeks,” he assures her. He urges her to cancel all her appointments and bring her computer. “Everyone will be working from home soon,” he says, including their two adult daughters – and he admits he’s also been “begging” them to get out of town.
Meanwhile, a friend of his has just died on a ventilator and there will be no burial – because, William tells Lucy, we are in “a mess”. As they leave, she is puzzled to see surgical masks and rubber gloves in the backseat of the car. And even more perplexed when the friend who lends them the house in Maine does not come to greet them because, as William explains, coming from New York, “in his head we are toxic”. Yet at this point, Lucy tells us, she was “not concerned at all.”
The disarming situation depicted at the opening of Elizabeth Strout’s new novel might sound fantastical, the stuff of a million post-apocalyptic movies, were it not for the fact that each of us has recently experienced it. . And especially containment. Strout isn’t the first writer to make it, but she certainly makes beautiful and exciting use of it in this most nuanced – and moving – book ever. Lucy Barton romance again. Indeed, it’s a truly monumental work – one that you think deserves a less wickedly banal title (can you imagine a male writer calling a book Lucy By the sea?).
Of course, a big part of the fascination is that this isn’t just Lucy’s recent past, but ours as well. As William drives her to Maine, we are immediately taken back to the drama of those dark, unvaccinated early days when frightened people, fortunately or not, were confined to cramped quarters for an unknown amount of time. For a writer who excels in enclosed, numb spaces (think the hospital room on the first Lucy novel), plus all the quirks and uncertainties of intimacy, the whole concept is a giveaway.
And, okay, most people didn’t have an empty beach house to hide in during the pandemic, but Strout knows it: This is an extremely socially conscious novel with a broad political sweep. . The Covid haves and have-nots, Black Lives Matter, the Capitol storming – “there was deep, deep unrest in the country” – we watch it all unfold through Lucy’s bewildered eyes. Even the way lockdown slowly discouraged our need for the material world, replacing it with a new and surprising joy in the natural world: “It felt like the physical world was opening its hand to us…and it was beautiful » .
Of course, Lucy’s apparent determination to stay in the dark about things sometimes seems unlikely to you – couldn’t she really have known what the gloves and masks were for? But Strout’s ability to soak every page in equivocation, in a kind of admiration – expertly honed now through four Lucy novels, including Oh William! selected for this year’s Booker – perfectly evokes the childlike disconnection with which Lucy takes (and takes) the world. Simply put, you believe it. She came, as we are reminded again and again (and maybe just once in a while too often), from an emotionally and materially impoverished background, a “very, very sad family.” Granted, she’s now a successful writer — a name big enough to make book tours and television appearances — but the barely-named terrors of her upbringing have left her fatally unnerved by the world and its inner workings.
Meanwhile, confinement life “by the sea” is getting into its rhythm. The couple bicker over puzzles, take walks – William gets up early to take his “five thousand first steps”. They shop (wash their clothes right after), cook, piss each other off – “he wanted lots of praise for every meal he made – I noticed” – and become “addicted” to the newspaper televised. “Every day another state had more cases, but I still didn’t understand what was in store for us,” Lucy says as New York explodes “with a horror I almost couldn’t seem to absorb.” She is appalled when William, a scientist, confesses to her that he thinks the situation could last “a year”.
Strout is, of course, at his best on the emotional – and family – fallout from the lockdown. Meeting for the first time in many months, masked and socially distanced, Lucy’s daughters cry when they realize they ‘can’t even give a family hug’. A friend comes to visit him, seated in the distance on a lawn chair. A depressing macho parent playing golf needs to be scared and quarantined. A surprise visit from the girls later is so gratifying that it seems to leave an “afterglow” – an observation that touches you deeply, because isn’t it something we’ve all experienced? In fact, Lucy’s relationship with her daughters – the resentments, the distance, the simple burning fact of their love for each other – is rendered here with a naked honesty that is often heartbreaking.
And Strout is equally shrewd about the eternal compromises of love, marriage, and ex-marriage. Finding herself in such sudden and perpetual closeness to the man who was once her husband, Lucy sometimes finds she can’t stand it. William isn’t as emotionally available as the male neighbor she walks with, William doesn’t like seeing her floss, and, she now recalls, William “doesn’t like to hear anything negative.” But he is, she admits, often able to communicate with their daughters in ways that she cannot.
Above all – because it’s no spoiler to say it’s a love story – he’s just incapable of being anything but generous with her, even if it’s a generosity that Lucy finds himself unable to accept without “a shudder of apprehension”. He admits, “Yours is the life I wanted to save,” explaining why he got her out of New York. “We all live with people – and places – and things – that we have given a lot of importance to,” Lucy thinks. “But we’re all weightless, in the end.” Maybe so, but I’m not sure I’ve ever read a novel that better explains why that, probably, is enough.
Julie Myerson’s non-fiction is published by Corsair (£14.99)