Elizabeth Strout and the loneliness of life

Strout never looks away from the loneliness that is inherent in being human
September 8, 2022
Lucy by the Sea
Elizabeth Strout (Viking, £14.99)
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In Lucy by the Sea, writer Lucy Barton recalls a film she watched as a child where white ping-pong balls bounced around in front of a blue screen, randomly hitting off each other. “I thought: That is like people. My point is, if we are lucky we bounce into someone. But we always bounce away again, at least a little.”

Elizabeth Strout’s pandemic novel, the fourth in the Lucy Barton series—the third of which, Oh William!, is nominated for this year’s Booker Prize—is an unflinching depiction of the ways we are all alone. The book opens in March 2020 when Lucy, an anxious novelist who grew up in poverty in rural Illinois, is grieving for her second husband David. When Covid-19 breaks out in New York, she is persuaded by her scientist ex-husband William to escape the city with him for a house on the coast in Maine.

We follow Lucy for a year as she and William navigate the long, grey days. Her family face their own challenges: her daughters Becca and Chrissy are locked down together—Becca is reeling from her husband’s betrayal, Chrissy from a miscarriage. Strout’s most distinctive skill—the ability to render every character, big or small, with precision—is on full display: Charlene Bibber, a cleaner in a care home, has the “faint odour of loneliness”; her eyes “shone with an almost happiness.” Lucy forms a deep friendship with former attorney Bob Burgess, who uses their walks together as a chance to furtively smoke cigarettes away from his wife.

Lucy finds love in the novel, but Strout never looks away from the loneliness that is inherent in being human: “We all live with people—and places—and things that we have given great weight to. But we are all weightless in the end.”