Lucy by the Sea is an amazing rumination on life during the COVID pandemic from the perspective of Elizabeth Strout’s well known character, Lucy Barton.
Lucy Barton is a famous novelist, recently widowed and living in the Manhattan apartment she shared with her New York Philharmonic cellist husband David. David has been gone for almost a year and a half. Readers of the Lucy Barton series know that Lucy has a very close relationship with her ex-husband William, from whom she has been divorced twenty years and with whom she has two daughters, Chrissy and Becka.
Lucy had cancelled a European book tour that would have begun in October of 2019 and was supposed to have been in Germany and Italy in March of 2020. Instead, in March of 2020, William demands that Lucy leave Manhattan and go to Maine with him. Lucy has a hard time comprehending the fuss. “What is strange as I look back is how I simply did not know what was happening.”
William and Lucy rent a battered house in Maine on the water. William’s friend and lawyer, Bob Burgess, arranged for them to rent the house and Lucy and Bob become close friends. The community is not at all welcoming of New Yorkers, fearful of the virus.
Lucy hates the house. “The house should have been lovely, I mean you could see it had been lovely at one point…but as I walked inside I felt what I always feel about being in someone else’s house: I hated it.” Lucy finds peace only by taking long walks. “I walked without seeing people…It seemed strange to me that the world of New York would remain so beautiful as all those people were dying.”
Lucy stays in touch with her daughter and communicates with her sister and brother. William stays in touch with his ex-wife Estelle and their daughter Bridget. The pandemic prevents them from seeing each other but ultimately they are able to visit outside and at a distance. And in the meantime, William and Lucy are growing closer.
The novel runs through the worst part of the pandemic, the George Floyd murder and the arrival of the vaccine. The novel addresses the personal side of the politics of division and the importance of treating people with decency regardless of perspective. But perhaps the most amazing aspect of this truly wonderful novel is that, despite everything—the pandemic, political trauma, distance—life goes on and people continue to change and grow. Lucy describes this continuity of life as ping pong balls bouncing around randomly and randomly hitting one another. “My point is, if we are lucky we bounce into someone. But we always bounce away again, at least a little.” And yet, there are still things you can only experience alone.
This novel is simply spectacular. It evinces a sense of unreality that we all experienced during the pandemic and yet it also highlights our adaptability and ability to make the most of the time we have. I cannot recommend this enough, although you may want to start with “My Name is Lucy Barton” and work your way up to this novel. Lucy by the Sea can be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.