In its emotional heft and honesty, its ability to go fearlessly to the darkest places, its pellucid empathy and its spot-on rendering of the pandemic experience for both individuals and the country, it is perhaps the best of the four marvelous novels Strout has written featuring Lucy Barton ... Reuniting with familiar characters and stories is a pleasure Lucy by the Sea offers Strout stalwarts, but new readers will find the novel engrossing, too. Strout provides all the back-stories and histories we’ll need, refreshing the memories of dedicated fans, deftly bringing new readers up to speed ... We have the sense that Lucy is confiding in us, admitting to things she wouldn’t tell those closest to her, bringing her uncomfortable emotions, flaws, and less admirable actions to us with unsparing honesty ... The intimacy Strout creates between narrator and reader is both comforting and challenging as she takes us into the human heart by which Lucy lives — its tenderness, its joys, and fears — and gives us thoughts too deep for tears ... The murder of George Floyd, the 2020 presidential election, Jan. 6 — all of these cataclysmic events are discussed by the novel’s characters, and their effects resound through the story, always in subtle and surprising ways. Strout is never preachy or didactic ... The rare moments of solidarity and understanding she achieves with those very different from her are deeply moving ... No novelist working today has Strout’s extraordinary capacity for radical empathy, for seeing the essence of people beyond reductive categories, for uniting us without sentimentality. I didn’t just love Lucy by the Sea; I needed it. May droves of readers come to feel enlarged, comforted, and genuinely uplifted by Lucy’s story.
... delicate, elliptical ... The novel could easily slip into the trap of first-world problems, as Shteyngart’s book does; but Lucy quickens with insight once she and William arrive at their destination, its postcard vistas and slack pace ... Strout writes in a conversational voice, evoking those early weeks and months of the pandemic with immediacy and candor. These halting rhythms resonate: Physically and emotionally Lucy is all over the map. Her feelings swing, pendulum-like, stirring up discord. When she upbraids William about a petty offense, he confesses that he had prostate cancer, sparking anguish and self-recrimination. Lucy begins to worry that she’s out of sync, a tension that Strout mines subtly. There’s no escape from the claustrophobia of Covid or family ... A lapsed connection kindles anew as she forges a fresh life for herself, rendered in Strout’s graceful, deceptively light prose. She joins the dance of family and friendship, adding a few subtle steps. Lucy’s done the hard work of transformation. May we do the same.
Like all of Strout’s novels, Lucy by the Sea has an anecdotal surface that belies a firm underlying structure. It is meant to feel like life—random, surprising, occasionally lit with flashes of larger meaning—but it is art. The Shaker plainness of Strout’s prose stretches to accommodate Lucy’s bewilderment as she goes about her life’s great project: attempting to understand the people around her ... Strout builds her fiction out of moments like these, little slights and kindnesses that make up the architecture of human relationships. Readers of the series will recognize that Lucy’s labile emotions must be a bit exhausting...She is an utterly believable mixture of solipsism and sympathy, just as William is both an indifferent confidant and a stalwart protector ... The intimacy of Strout’s fiction doesn’t lend itself particularly well to topicality, and as the novel careers through recent catastrophes, from the covid death count in New York to the murder of George Floyd and the January 6th insurrection, its voice occasionally becomes stilted. The appeal of Lucy Barton lies in the immediacy with which she experiences the people and the events around her, but here, like so many Americans during the pandemic, she engages with the world primarily through screens, reading the obituary of a friend on a Web site and watching the Black Lives Matter protests on TV. Lucy’s responses to all this feel generic and a bit on the nose ... There is a naïve purity to Lucy that has made her precious to countless readers of Strout’s work, and a little of that is lost when she second-guesses her short story and sets it aside. In a novel full of losses—for Lucy and William are of an age when losses come frequently—this is a small one, but it stings all the same.
Among the pleasures of Strout's fictional world is the way characters from earlier books — like Bob, and Olive Kitteridge — keep turning up, sometimes in cameo roles. Another pleasure is Lucy's distinctive, plain-spoken narrative voice, which reads as if she were talking to a new friend she's decided to take into her confidence ... Lucy By the Sea is a chronicle of a plague year — the first year of this ongoing pandemic. It captures its disruptions, uncertainties, and anxieties better than any novel I've read to date on the subject ... Heartwarming as well as somber ... The evolving dynamic between Lucy and William is wonderfully wrought, touching but never mawkish ... Although simple on the surface, Strout's new novel manages, like her others, to encompass love and friendship, joy and anxiety, grief and grievances, loneliness and shame.
... an account of the never-ending season of the virus, intimate and immediate as a diary, in which we’re reminded, every hour, that we can’t predict a thing ... One of the glorious risks that Strout takes in her Lucy Barton books is to give us a first-person narrator who’s presented as a very successful writer who nonetheless can barely get out a word ... It’s a daringly humble procedure, especially for a novelist who, in her Olive Kitteridge books, has not only been awarded a Pulitzer and semi-permanent residency on the best-seller list but also shown herself to be a craftswoman of extraordinary authority and poise, an impeccable omniscient narrator. Strout knows, however, that honesty begins when words give out ... a reminder that Strout lives so deeply inside her characters—and loves them all so much—that they take on a life of their own. And in so doing turn every simple summation on its head ... yet another brilliant flash of unexpectedness from the wisest and most alive writer of fiction taking the temperature of America today.
What better form than the novel, then, to help us remember the first stages of the pandemic anew, rather than avert our eyes in retrospect? ... Elizabeth Strout’s newest novel, Lucy by the Sea, achieves this goal imperfectly but beautifully. Strout is among the great living American writers, known for prose that is the literary equivalent of Shaker furniture: so elegant and sturdy that, though Strout frequently engages with current events, her writing often seems entirely detached from contemporary literary trends. This is not true of Lucy by the Sea, if only because it comes as part of the first trickle of COVID-centric novels ... The book can feel like a time capsule ... Its early chapters can read less like a novel than a record of how the pandemic’s earliest stages looked and felt for those of us who were lucky enough to be able to shelter indoor ... Communality is limiting, too: It means that Strout is giving readers an account they may already know, rather than escorting them into the specificities and oddities of someone else’s experience, as fiction can so uniquely allow. Not until later in the novel do the quirks and messy contours of Lucy’s life begin to appear—and, with them, the book’s true ability to explore absence and grief ... Novels that deal successfully with a collective event like the pandemic tend to hinge on the interplay between the historic and the personal. Lucy by the Sea, too, eventually finds that balance ... The pandemic Strout evokes becomes Lucy’s pandemic, strange and isolated and just as peculiar as any real person’s. When that happens, the book loosens up—becoming, finally, as wise and idiosyncratic as any novel can be.
This is a quietly profound book about grief and loss — oh, so much loss! — but also kindness, generosity and resilience ... In her utterly clear, unmistakable voice, Lucy grapples with the magnitude of that year ... Strout's depictions of the enormous social travesties are not always convincing...While we believe her — this woman who grew up terribly abused and impoverished has plenty to be angry about — her observations feel almost too small for such catastrophic events ... Strout is on firmer ground with more intimate scenes ... links to Strout's previous novels are lovely snaps of familiarity for the reader and a reminder of how small the world is and how we are all connected — a lesson many of us learned from COVID.
The broader social context of doom and despair contrasts with the close and compassionate first-person narrator and reflects the novel’s primary interests in loss and love on a systemic and personal level. The novel inhabits an emotionally rich terrain ... Strout’s prose is truthful and emphatic. At times lyrical, at moments burdened, the layered texture to Strout’s tone fights a hint of self-doubt with patience and kindness ... Her descriptions are vivid and unique ... It is not essential to being immersed in Strout’s writing, which lives in the moment. Someone familiar with Strout’s previous novels would surely connect to this one on a deeper level.
There are painful moments...Yet there are also instances of deep, peaceful conviviality ... Strout brilliantly reminds us how long put-away fears and disorders made dreadful reappearances during the lockdown months ... If this novel is less powerful and spectacular than Oh William! and My Name Is Lucy Barton, then the book itself seems aware of its milder tone ... Lucy says a lot of childish things to steady herself. She appeals to an imagined good mother she has invented, who issues soothing banalities. She has a horror of seeming inconsiderate. Yet how could Lucy Barton narrate from the drab depths of lockdown with tremendous precision and flair when she is confused and flailing? It would not have been believable as her voice. Fidelity to the character has a part to play here. While some will claim the book was written too quickly, others will feel this restraint must have required great self-discipline from Lucy’s creator ... Strout gives us an utterly natural conversational tone, the uncovering of stern misgivings in real time, as well as an uncomfortable merging of safety, familiarity and betrayal. The novel also emphasises, as all Strout’s books do, the need for the wrong conversations in life when the right ones are unthinkable. These sorts of emotional prevarications, punctuated by Lucy’s searing courage, give a vivid sense, as you read, of what it means to be alive in such troubling times.
Strout is writing masterpieces at a pace you might not suspect from their spaciousness and steady beauty ... William is hard to like, and Lucy’s acceptance of him requires our attentive reflection. Strout refuses the easy satisfactions of a tender tale, though she is deeply interested in what these people can give each other ... Each of these books is complete in itself. The relationships between them are remarkable, but would be just as compelling if one read the Lucy sequence in reverse. I’m a little more doubtful about Strout’s insistence that all her novels chart the same fictional world, with characters liable to reappear at any moment ... Strout has written another wondrously living book, as fine a pandemic novel as one could hope for.
Strout isn’t the first writer to go there, but she certainly makes magnificent and thrilling use of it in this, her most nuanced – and intensely moving – Lucy Barton novel yet. Indeed it’s a truly monumental piece of work – one that you can’t help feeling deserves a less mischievously banal title ... For a writer who excels at enclosed, benumbed spaces, as well as all the quirks and uncertainties of intimacy, the whole concept is a gift ... this is an acutely socially aware novel with a wide political sweep ... Sure, Lucy’s apparent determination to remain in the dark about things does occasionally strike you as unlikely – would she really not have known what the gloves and masks were for? But Strout’s ability to drench each page in equivocality, in a kind of awe – expertly honed now through four Lucy novels, including Oh William! shortlisted for this year’s Booker – perfectly evokes the childlike disconnect with which Lucy takes on (and takes in) the world. Put simply, you believe it ... Strout is, of course, at her best on the emotional – and familial – fallout of lockdown.
The resulting style has been praised by a wide range of readers and critics, and it deserves every word and more ... If there’s one thing that distinguishes Lucy by the Sea from the other Lucy Barton novels, it’s the way it draws Strout’s previous novels together into a separate literary world.
... an impressive performance ... Strout, at her best, never strains towards plot creation. Everything that happens here (until, maybe, the final scenes) seems natural and normal, with the right amount of unusual baked in ... Barton’s dominant mode as a narrator is a kind of carefully protected naivety. She uses naivety as Roth used irony, to say what the author wants to say and undercut it at the same time. One of the things she uses it for is to make you feel more strongly what everybody already knows...Sometimes this register seems less suited to the complexity of events ... What you make of this novel depends to a large extent on your sympathies for its narrator. There are many wonderful passages, descriptions of the changing New England landscape, moments of real insight, powerful depictions of families in flux. But Lucy by the Sea sometimes feels a little like a children’s story. Characters tend to be either one-note (good or bad), or two-note (alternately good and bad, with not much room in between). Lucy herself, like a child, measures her reactions simply ... Strout presents a view of the world that equates suffering with authority and runs the risk of both sentimentalizing and simplifying it, and of defining people entirely by isolated events. This also explains why the author was so quick to leap on the narrative potential of the pandemic – a period in history when the tragic and domestic were forced into contact with each other on a scale never seen before.
You can start here, if you like, with Lucy by the Sea. The novel neatly sits by itself. However, if, like me, you have read all of Strout’s novels before, then reading this will feel like being welcomed home ... You could say that this novel is about dealing with many layers of grief; but you could also say that this novel is filled with hope and eventual acceptance ... Reading this novel was painful at times. By that, I mean it reminded me how horrible and frightening these last few years have been ... This is Strout’s most contemporary novel. It is beautifully written, filled with sharp and simple descriptions.
I found I couldn’t put the book down. Once again, Strout has written a novel that pulls the reader in with its strength of voice, its compelling interiority, and a sense of community that welcomes the reader into its pages ... The novel is visually interesting, as well, with paragraphs often separated by white space ... This tension between not knowing and knowing is the thread that pulls the reader through the novel. Lucy is telling us this story from some future moment, looking back at the start of the pandemic, and considering what she knows now versus what she knew then. By using the retrospective voice, Strout skillfully tells us a little something about what will happen over the course of the book, over the course of this year in Lucy’s life. She gives us enough plot details to pull us into the story and make us want to read on. And she continues this throughout the book, almost as though she is setting out a course of breadcrumbs for us to follow. By being in Lucy’s head and voice, we, too, are deep into that uncertainty of not knowing. It is as though we need the encouragement to read on, just as Lucy needs encouragement to keep moving forward, one day at a time ... Again and again, we see Lucy’s ability to interrogate and consider her thoughts, to be honest with herself and with the reader ... When Strout’s characters appeared in the earlier books, it occasionally felt a little odd, as though characters belonged in their own book world and shouldn’t be breaking into others. But here, it feels just right. It’s as though we need all the community we can get.
Whenever it’s my turn to review one of [Strout's] novels, I seem to get the duds. Because Elizabeth Strout’s output is variable ... Unquestionably the weakest of the Amgash novels ... Strout is insightful on her theme of isolation and connection, and there are some lovely passages about Lucy’s complex, shifting relationship with her two grown-up daughters. It’s an easy read that feels as if it was far too easy to write: thin on material, stylistically lazy ... Strout is routinely praised for the sparseness of her prose, and Lucy must be fiction’s most unwriterly writer ... If you love the work of Elizabeth Strout, avoid this one.
Astute and timely ... If, like me, you find you’re 'over Covid', to the extent that you’ve no interest in reading a fictional retelling, Lucy by the Sea will change your mind ... The strangeness of the pandemic is made fresh through the kind of considered detail and clarity of insight that is so often missing in the moment ... Strout’s idiomatic style, the plain but persuasive pattern of her prose, makes clear in ways that feel new the collective trauma of recent years. Repetition and amplification are skilfully deployed to give the reader access to the narrator’s mindset, her unusual powers of observation ... This is a book full of wisdom.
Arguably the best fictional depiction yet of how the events of the past two-and-a-half-years have and haven’t changed us ... Occasionally, it feels too soon, samey and depressing to revisit that period. Strout, however, is wise to this risk ... There is something life-affirming about Strout’s fiction and it is connected to the way that her novels are getting leaner and more spacious, creating room for readers to reflect on their own experiences.
Strout’s stand-out skill is rendering the emotional riptide roiling under ordinary lives ... Where the novel feels flat, however, is when it forgoes interior life to recount current events ... Hot-button topics such as child labor in Bangladesh and gender nonconformity get shoe-horned into the narrative, and Lucy’s usually endearing naivety veers perilously close to twee.
Does the latest 'Lucy' novel, Lucy by the Sea, live up to expectation? It’s hard to say ... Lucy’s pure way of seeing the world and her bald way of expressing what she sees are endlessly appealing. And then there’s structure. What at first seems haphazard and fragmented is always revealed to hold mysterious integrity ... These attributes all apply to Lucy by the Sea, and yet there is something essential missing ... The fact that this is a 'pandemic novel' might have something to do with it ... Lucy by the Sea works better as a book about relationships than a book about any real-world historical moment ... Self-interest, collective interest, connection, isolation — these are pertinent topics, with or without a pandemic. The book chews on them in subtle and interesting ways. The writing is fluid, with seemingly simple yet rich sentiment ... The book is close to brilliant. But, long-time Strout fan that I am, I was waiting for something as I read — that painful, hopeful sucker punch that never arrived.
The story of the novel is slow and simple ... No topic is too small for Lucy Barton, and no outcome beyond the novel’s imaginative reach. Strout insists on the openness of stories ... Some stories are irresistible to Strout, and she replays them in most of her books. First, families are weird, unfathomable, and sometimes lost ... For all the occasional extravagance of Strout’s plots, the magic of the everyday outweighs melodrama.
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] has a knack of making the reader feel as though they are the only person in the world whom she entrusts with her story ... Moreover, that deceptively artless style, which captures thought processes seemingly in the moment they occur, with Lucy contradicting and refining what she means as she talks, works beautifully in tandem with the novels’ abiding big ideas: the impossibility of escaping your various former selves and of ever truly knowing the people you love ... Still, even an avid fan such as myself can’t help but wonder whether this fourth Lucy Barton novel, published barely 12 months after its predecessor, is surplus to requirements ... Lucy is downright annoying in her new one...Whereas the Lucy of previous iterations is watchful, complicated and yes, sometimes infuriating, here she comes across as passive, twee, even a bit silly. Part of the problem is that Strout is writing about the pandemic. No subject is off limits because it is familiar, of course, but reams of words have already been expended on what it felt like to live through lockdown and Lucy, whose perspicacity relies on a sort of double bluff in which a banal phrase cleverly reveals a deeper truth, can rarely come up with anything much more penetrating than 'my mind was having trouble taking things in' ... More of an issue are the relentless mannerisms ... With their granular compassion for the grinding limitations of small town lives, the Lucy Barton books are state-of-the-nation novels in micro, quiet little take downs of the great lie of the American dream. It’s a pity then that Strout feels the need here to over-egg the point, with Lucy saying she understands where the January 6 Capitol rioters are coming from, before then deciding she feels no common ground with racists after all. It’s typical of a novel that often mistakes simplistic observation for subtle insight, bathos for pathos. Strout is still marvellous at piercing the aching loneliness of the human condition. But I think I’m done with Lucy Barton.
All the angst of those early COVID-19 days crystallizes in Strout’s spare but consequential prose: the precariousness and paranoia, the disorientation and despair. Once again, Strout’s irrepressible heroine is as candid and self-aware as ever, her memories, regrets, and desires heightened by whatever improbable situation is at hand. In her certainty and delicacy, Strout has created the perfect pandemic novel, which is a strange sentiment, but true nonetheless.
... captivating ... Bleak memories of Lucy’s impoverished childhood and of her recently deceased husband surface in shattering flashbacks. Loneliness, grief, longing, and loss pervade intertwined family stories as Lucy and William attempt to create new friendships in an initially hostile town. What emerges is a prime testament to the characters’ resilience. With Lucy Barton, Strout continues to draw from a deep well.
This is the third time Lucy has chronicled the events and emotions that shape her life, and the voice that was so fresh and specific in My Name Is Lucy Barton (2016), already sounding rather tired in Oh, William! (2021), is positively worn out here. Fatigue and disorientation are natural responses to a cataclysmic upheaval like the coronavirus, but unfortunately, it’s Strout’s imagination that seems exhausted in this meandering tale, which follows Lucy and William to Maine, relates their experiences there in haphazard fashion, and closes with their return to New York. Within this broad story arc, Lucy’s narration rambles from topic to topic ... To readers of Strout’s previous books, it’s all unduly familiar, indeed stale, an impression reinforced when the author takes a searing emotional turning point from The Burgess Boys (2013) and a painful refusal of connection in Oh William! and recycles them as peripheral plot points. The novel’s early pages do nicely capture the sense of disbelief so many felt in the pandemic’s early days, but Lucy’s view from rural safety of the havoc wrought in New York feels superficial and possibly offensive. Strout’s characteristic acuity about complex human relationships returns in a final scene between Lucy and her daughters, but from a writer of such abundant gifts and past accomplishments, this has to be rated a disappointment ... Not the kind of deep, resonant fiction we expect from the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Olive Kitteridge.