Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout

Elizabeth Strout’s novels, as she moves through her 60s, are more and more about how little we can know of another life, one another, even ourselves. All we can do is throw our arms around what baffles us.

So it’s hardly surprising that, just one year after publishing her third novel about Lucy Barton—its very title, Oh William!, a wonderfully confounding mix of pity and exasperation and love—she’s bringing out an extended postscript: a novel about how Lucy’s ex-husband William, a parasitologist who sees what’s coming, whisks her out of New York City at the first sign of the pandemic, to a cold, lonely house on a cliff in Maine. What follows is an account of the never-ending season of the virus, intimate and immediate as a diary, in which we’re reminded, every hour, that we can’t predict a thing.

One of the glorious risks that Strout takes in her Lucy Barton books is to give us a first-person narrator who’s presented as a very successful writer who nonetheless can barely get out a word. Life forever leaves her at a loss. It “was weird to be with” her ex-husband, she confesses at one point here, “except that it wasn’t always weird, which made it extra weird.” Meeting a daughter in distress, all she can muster is “Oh honey … honey, honey, honey.”

It’s a daringly humble procedure, especially for a novelist who, in her Olive Kitteridge books, has not only been awarded a Pulitzer and semi-permanent residency on the best-seller list but also shown herself to be a craftswoman of extraordinary authority and poise, an impeccable omniscient narrator. Strout knows, however, that honesty begins when words give out.

In Lucy by the Sea, she continues to conceal her art in seeming artlessness and gives us a world in which nothing stands to reason or allows for easy expression. As Lucy and William settle into their socially distant seclusion, they fall into a plague year in which time seems to be suspended even as loved ones are dying, suddenly separating, getting pregnant.

They piece together jigsaw puzzles, take walks, hold hands to watch a thunderstorm. They get dramatic updates from their two daughters while Lucy’s somewhat estranged sister announces triumphantly that no one is wearing a mask at church because masking is a government conspiracy. As William keeps hatching kind surprises for her, Lucy realizes she could fall once more for the ex who betrayed her again and again.

She takes solace amid her trembling by watching the tides, a dandelion, “leaves shining brightly in the sun.” Then she again says how much she hates more or less everything around her. She finds William impossible at times, then hears he’s just been through a bout of cancer. She recalls the violence she hated in her mother and feels it rising in herself.

The tides become a perfect reflection of Lucy’s moods, never staying in place for long as she goes through panic attacks, witnesses miracles, recalls the poverty in which she grew up. A friendly middle-aged woman she comes to know confesses—life is so arbitrary—that she stole a single shoe from a retirement home (belonging to the wife of a man with whom the middle-aged woman had had a “fling”).

Ever since her debut novel, Amy and Isabelle—the most nuanced treatment of a #MeToo situation I’ve encountered—Strout has reminded us that everyone has a point. A graduate of law school, she knows that a case can be made for almost any being, and that a writer’s job is to presume innocence, not guilt. One happy result of this is that we never know what’s coming in her books, and there’s no character who can’t surprise us.

Because she published that first work when she was 42, Strout has always written as a grown-up; there’s nothing clumsy or unconsidered, even in her earliest books. But in recent years, she’s homed in on a territory all her own: small-town Maine, as reflected off sophisticated Manhattan. By moving back and forth between the two, she tells us as much as any writer living about the widening gulf between red states and blue, angry poor and entitled rich, countryside and big city. Every time Lucy or William encounters a new neighbor here, we’re witnessing some version of the 2020 election.

Another way of putting this is that in Lucy by the Sea, Strout brings together the world of Olive Kitteridge, a retired teacher in Crosby, Maine, and that of worldly, book-touring Lucy Barton. One character here shares stories about cleaning for a “big bullfrog” in a retirement home, and the bullfrog’s name, we learn, is Olive Kitteridge. A woman shows up who turns out to be the same person we met as a little girl in Strout’s second novel from 16 years ago, Abide with Me. Another of the neighbors who keeps ambling into Lucy’s life here is one of the eponymous characters from Strout’s book The Burgess Boys, a shaggy and lovable soul always ready to lend a sympathetic ear.

It’s a reminder that Strout lives so deeply inside her characters—and loves them all so much—that they take on a life of their own. And in so doing turn every simple summation on its head. A very kind woman here is shown, almost against Lucy’s will, to be a Trump supporter, and when Lucy goes through humiliations of her own, she realizes why there’s such rage across America. The man who sticks a sign—GET OUT OF HERE NEW YORKERS! GO HOME!!—on the back window of William and Lucy’s car turns out to be a fond and friendly neighbor. Every time Lucy is about to pronounce someone insupportable, the tides change and she realizes she doesn’t have a clue.

All of Strout’s recent books could be entitled Studies in Loneliness and Light. Even as they always take us into the most difficult characters and situations, they never close the door on joy or affirmation. While being raced in an ambulance toward what could very well be his death, a character at the end of Anything is Possible, from 2017, feels a “strange exquisite joy.” Olive Kitteridge, realizing she will die, contemplates a rosebud with gratitude.

In this case, for all the moments of beauty and happiness, the final effect is the opposite; vaccines arrive and Lucy returns, as she never expected, to life and New York City, but she can’t resist a feeling of foreboding, both personal and national. It’s yet another brilliant flash of unexpectedness from the wisest and most alive writer of fiction taking the temperature of America today.

Pico Iyer is a columnist for Air Mail. His new book, The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise, will be published early next year