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Elizabeth Strout's new book is an exploration of how grief shapes us

Elizabeth Strout's Lucy by The Sea, set in the early days of the pandemic, explores the privacy of grief

The book is set against the canvas of the communal pain in the early days of the pandemic. (iStock)

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Lucy By The Sea, the fourth in Elizabeth Strout’s Amgash series, begins in the first year of the coronavirus outbreak, when Lucy and her long-divorced ex-husband, William, abandon New York for Maine. Through this unlikely reunion, Strout chronicles how the pandemic dismantled the construct of our emotions.

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Against the canvas of the communal pain in the early days of the pandemic, Strout explores the privacy of grief and how we are shaped by all that we have lost. While William mourns his recent divorce, Lucy grieves the death of her second husband. In some ways, she illustrates how talking and thinking about the dead may well liberate us to warm up to the living.

From the safety of a borrowed home, Lucy and William together watch covid-19 raid the world. The pair discusses the virus, the similarity between their mood and the weather. They watch the news together, and, almost with the same diligence, dissect many dreams and visions. They talk about all the people they both knew and what had become of them. Then there are the things that were left unsaid but contemplated, thus confided to the reader.

Just as in the other books of the series, Lucy has a tendency to repeat some of the same memories, which may annoy some readers. William voices this when she tells him how sad she felt about her brother. “Lucy, I don’t want to hear this. You have told me this before and I don’t want to hear this again,” he says. But isn’t this honest writing? For, as Strout observes: “It’s funny the things we remember even when we think we are not remembering well anymore.”

This novel is also about a mother and her grown-up children. At a point when Lucy has to resist meddling in her daughters’ lives, she reminds herself of the time she was pregnant with her first child. She had put a hand over her big belly and thought: “Whoever you are, you do not belong to me. My job is to help you get into the world, but you do not belong to me.” Lucy is virtuous like that, unlike Strout’s other cheeky female protagonist, Olive Kitteridge (of the 2008 eponymous novel), who also makes a cameo in this book, “sitting in her chair like a big bullfrog”.

One of the pleasures of reading this series is encountering such cameos—Bob, of Strout’s 2013 book The Burgess Boys, also makes an appearance in the Lucy series. Although a tad forced and appearing desultory at times, these special appearances are too endearing to appear manufactured to a lover of the Strout universe.

Admittedly, I am at the centre of the demographic most likely to enjoy a novel about a woman who is a writer by profession, but Lucy By The Sea is utterly engaging even otherwise because it distils the ongoingness of love and loss into words. Strout’s ability to use the anecdotal structure is what makes the series compelling.

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The timelessness of Lucy By The Sea, however, lies in experiencing the tenderness with which Strout treats the later-life reunion of man and woman who were once together in their youth.

If this book were a poem, it would be precisely these two lines from a love poem by Neil Gaiman: “This is everything I have to tell you about love: nothing. This is everything I have learned about marriage: nothing.”

Akshaya Pillai is a Kerala-based features writer.

 

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