Just when you thought you had maxed out on all things pandemic, Elizabeth Strout arrives with, yes, a pandemic novel. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Portland author reprises her Lucy Barton character to convert the grimmest period in our recent past into something triumphant and hopeful.

“Lucy by the Sea” opens as COVID is making its way around the world, and few people know what to make of it. William Gerhardt, ex-husband and latter-day friend of Lucy Barton, is a scientist who grasps the impending danger. He serves as a one-man CDC, issuing guidelines and mandates to family and friends. His goal, simply put, is to save Lucy and their daughters, by getting them out of New York City.

“Lucy, I’m picking you up and we’re leaving,” William says. They’re heading to Maine, where he has rented a house overlooking the water to ride out the pandemic. And so begins Strout’s journey, via Lucy and clan, through the upside-down world we’ve all inhabited these last few years.

Lucy, a recent widow and bestselling novelist, has just finished a national book tour and abruptly cancels the European leg of her trip. It’s winter of 2020, during the lockdown, and she finds herself in Maine, alone with William, unable to read or write. She feels a sense of loss, and of being lost, of normal routines upended, and strange new habits springing up. This was the period of full-blown COVID craziness – of wiping down the mail and sanitizing the groceries.

Lucy’s days are formless and disorienting. She goes for frequent walks alone, or with William, sometimes with her new friend, Bob Burgess, who admires her books. Lucy and William go for aimless drives; occasionally they visit new friends, always outdoors, people spread six feet apart and masked.

“We played Parcheesi a few times, and I kept thinking: I can’t wait for this to end. Meaning the game. Meaning all of it,” Lucy says.


Of course they’re in contact remotely, digitally, with their grown-up kids and assorted friends and family, who supply ample drama from infidelities to miscarriages. Some far-flung relatives flout COVID protocols, with dire consequences. Others fall ill, regardless of precautions. Still, amid so much difficult news is the growing affinity between William and his half-sister, Lois, who meet up in Maine. Their late-in-life kinship comforts them both.

Over the course of Strout’s four-part Amgash series, she has portrayed Lucy in multiple settings, over many decades. (“Oh William!” – published in 2021 and part of that series – was recently shortlisted for a Booker Prize.) Even so, the deprivations of Lucy’s childhood remain the backdrop for everything else. Perhaps not surprisingly, the ever fretful Lucy rises to the occasion of the pandemic, as if by reflex. With everyone suddenly in the same boat, in a sea of endless not knowing, Lucy is no longer unique in her neediness. Her often halting narration no longer seems so halting.

William, too, has changed and softened. This book is arguably William’s redemption tour – he’s both heroic for having saved his family, and remorseful for the affairs he had during his marriage to Lucy. Moreover, at 71, his recent bout with prostate cancer serves as a reminder of his own mortality.

Notwithstanding several marriages between them, Lucy and William have long seen themselves as family. Indeed Lucy credits William with having brought her into the world. Living together in Maine during the pandemic, their lives so elemental, somehow brings them closer. “A strange compatibility was taking place gradually between William and me,” Lucy says. And later: “He was still William. And I was still me. But we were also really happy then.” So they decide to tell their daughters that they’ve gotten back together. Whether they actually chose this situation, or it simply evolved, is a question neither of them can answer. Free will is a concept they debate, and that Strout muses upon from one book to the next.

Among the many pleasures of this book is the sense that Strout had a ball writing it. In Lucy, we have a novelist who talks about her writing, and describes how she creates characters – not unlike Strout herself, in interviews. So many layers of metafiction can’t help but entertain. Then, too, Strout seeds the story with nods to her earlier iconic books and characters – Olive Kitteridge and Bob Burgess, chief among them – and she lets drop key details that may surprise some readers. For newcomers, this book is effectively a primer for Strout’s other works.

Lucy Barton, meanwhile, continues to amaze with her resilience. She ponders the restless beauty of the ocean, a simple buoying talk with a friend, her own newly rearranged life. “We are all in lockdown, all the time,” she says. “We just don’t know it, that’s all. But we do the best we can.”

Joan Silverman writes op-eds, essays and book reviews. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including The Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune and Dallas Morning News. She is the author of “Someday This Will Fit,” a collection of linked essays.

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