Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4.5/5
This third chapter in the Lucy Barton series (I am Lucy Barton and Oh William!) might alternately be titled Lucy Gets Through the Covid Pandemic as it extends from just before Covid slams into New York City and continues through the availability of vaccines. Lucy and her first husband, William (the parasitologist), head to Maine for what (very) naive Lucy is told will just be a few weeks to escape the ravages of Covid. William is — very simply — trying to save her life.

I’m a huge Strout fan and have read most or all of her books — I love her clean, clear writing and insight into personal experience. I did find this book a little more preachy than previous novels to the point where I liked the main character much less than I did previously. This is largely because the book took on political topics (Covid, George Floyd, the Capitol Riots) and manipulated the story to show how very correct her side of the political spectrum was in every case (the Capitol Rioters were all nazis and racists but the George Floyd riots were all peaceful; everyone in her book who did not adhere to strict covid protocols were rashly stupid and were all punished by death or hospitalization, etc.). While worrying about the state of democracy and bemoaning child labor in foreign countries, she has access to lots of money, and while befriending people with very different beliefs and professing love for her born again sister, she comes off as feeling superior to them. Of course, it is Lucy’s story and to be fair, the author does let some characters blast Lucy for just that! She even has Lucy (a writer) write stories about people very unlike herself so … overall I enjoyed the book, and it gave me a lot to think about (I think I’m still just sensitive to the many sanctimonious people I weathered Covid with, some of whom called me a “grandma killer” when I went out to run on deserted streets).

Thank you to Random House and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 20th, 2022.

Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout (Literary Fiction)

Characters: 5/5 Plot; 3.5/5 Writing: 5/5

I loved this deeply meditative book about how much we can really know one another. This is written as a novelized memoir of the fictional character introduced in a previous work — I am Lucy Barton. It felt so incredibly real to me that it’s hard to remember that she is a work of fiction. Here, Lucy reflects on her first husband — William — with whom she is still friendly and the prior and current relationship between them. The “action” takes place a year after Lucy’s second husband has died and William’s third wife has left him.

I resonated with so many of the feelings and experiences described in this book. Strout has a beautiful and apt writing style that captures the essence of what is important in any human interaction — even within oneself. I was often brought to tears — not because anything particularly sad was happening — but because she captured it so perfectly.

A great line:
“Grief is such a – oh, it is such a solitary thing; this is the terror of it, I think. It is like sliding down the outside of a really long glass building while nobody sees you.”

I also loved the last line but I won’t list it here — you need to read the rest of them first!

Thank you to Random House and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 19th, 2021.

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout (Literary Fiction)

Writing:  4.5 /5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4.5 /5

Olive Kitteridge — gruff, direct, honest and with absolutely no patience for pretense or pretentiousness. Some people love Olive for just this reason — many others consider her a rude “old bag”.  I love the fact that Olive — in her late seventies now — continues to have epiphanies about herself and her life.

The book is a collection of snapshots of life in the coastal town of Crosby, Maine. Some are centered on Olive herself, but in others she plays only a peripheral, though impactful, role. Ranging in age from middle school to elderly and incorporating contextual situations such as drug use, sexual harassment, suicide, Somali immigration, and even the value provided by a dominatrix (!) — the stories are full of introspection and reflection. They are more about how people absorb experiences into their own perspective, rather than the experiences themselves.

Strout is the master of the imperfect relationship — no closure, no solutions — just the reality of evolving relationships with ups and downs and fresh interior “ahas” rather than the drama of abrupt discovery via loud confrontation.

For those who loved Strout’s 2008 work Olive Kitteridge, Olive,Again takes up where the latter leaves off, covering the next decade of Olive’s life (it’s not necessary to read the first book, this one stands up well on its own). It’s a fascinating look at life from the perspective of old age, and while there is loss and plenty of “old age indignities,” there is also a great sense of hope, understanding, and wisdom.
Great Quotes:
“It seemed to her she had never before completely understood how far apart human experience was.”

“And then he thought: how does one live an honest life?”

“It’s just the way it was, that’s all. People either didn’t know how they felt about something or they chose never to say how they really felt about something”

“…and during the night they would shift, but always they were holding each other, and Jack thought of their large old bodies, shipwrecked, thrown up upon the shore — and how they hold on for dear life!”

“What frightened him was how much of his life he had lived without knowing who he was or what he was doing. It caused him to feel an inner trembling, and he could not quite find the words — for himself — to even put it exactly as he sensed it. But he sensed that he had lived his life in a way that he had not known.”

“But it was almost over, after all, her life. It swelled behind her like a sardine fishing net, all sorts of useless seaweed and broken bits of shells and the tiny, shining fish — all those hundreds of students she had taught, the girls and boys in high school she had passed in the corridor when she was a high school girl herself, the billion streaks of emotion she’d had as she’d looked at sunrises sunsets, the different hands of waitresses who had place before her cups of coffee — All of it gone, or about to go.”

“Because as her heart became more constricted, Henry’s heart became needier, and when he walked up behind her in the house sometimes to slip his arms around her, it was all she could do to not visibly shudder.”

“Cindy Coombs, there’s not one goddamn person in this world who doesn’t have a bad memory or two to take with them through life.”

Thank you to Random House and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 15th, 2019.