Books

Novel Connections: A Reader’s Guide to Elizabeth Strout

Photo © Leonardo Cendamo

In Elizabeth Strout’s last novel, My Name is Lucy Barton, the main character remembers her childhood like this: “Loneliness was the first flavour I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden in the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.” It is a sad way to recall one’s youth, and also not without a hint of self-pity. The narrator, after all, is telling us this about herself. Which is why it is both satisfying and terribly sad to read, in Strout’s new novel, Anything is Possible, that the Lucy’s self-assessment was correct.

  • The cover of the book Anything Is Possible

    Anything Is Possible

    A Novel

    Tommy, the narrator of Strout’s new book, is a former janitor at Lucy’s elementary school, and he remembers walking in on her in an empty classroom one afternoon: “lying on three chairs pushed together, over near the radiators, her coat as a blanket, fast asleep. He had stared at her, watching her chest move slightly up and down, seen the dark circles beneath her eyes, her eyelashes spread like tiny twinkling stars, for her eyelids had been moist as though she had been weeping before she slept.” Poor Lucy. Poor Tommy. Yet, lonely and maladapted as they may be, it is impossible to pity the characters who inhabit the too-small towns and love-hungry families of Elizabeth Strout’s novels. They simultaneously break your heart while driving you insane, and also making you laugh.

     
  • There are links and overlaps between all of Strout’s novels, but it is not necessary to read them in chronological order, as the world of each book is complete unto itself. At the same time, even offhand references to familiar locations and characters deepen your appreciation, retrospectively, of the books that came before. As the adult Lucy recalls being told about being a writer, “you will only have one story.” Strout, too, is concerned with one story – the story of loneliness – and how we fight against it, succumb to it, or use it to connect with all the other lonely people – the other Lucy Bartons – we come across in our lives. To see how Strout has developed that theme over her career, check out these books.

  • The cover of the book Amy and Isabelle

    Amy and Isabelle

    A novel

    Strout always wanted to be a writer, but didn’t always think her dream was possible. She got a law degree and worked as a lawyer for six months before deciding she’d rather be a failed writer than a successful attorney. This first novel, which tells the story of the sometimes stormy relationship between a single mother and her sixteen-year-old daughter, is the result of that decision. Set in the small town of Shirley Falls, where Strout will return in later work, the novel explores what happens when characters keep secrets both from each other and themselves.

     
  • The cover of the book Abide With Me

    Abide With Me

    A Novel

    A different New England town, but the same small town tensions and repressions inform Strout’s second novel, which also concerns secrets and silences. Following the death of his wife, minister Tyler Caskey fears he’s lost his faith – and is danger of losing his congregation as well. Even worse, his five-year-old daughter, Katherine, has stopped speaking. In confronting both the community and his own beliefs about faith, love, and loyalty, Tyler must figure out a way to save his church, his family, and himself.

     
  • The cover of the book Olive Kitteridge

    Olive Kitteridge

    Fiction

    Strout won the Pulitzer Prize for her third book, a collection of linked short stories centered around the life of cranky, irresistible New England matriarch Olive Kitteridge. Again writing from small town Maine, this time a village called Crosby, Strout shows the way people can be sick to death of each other, yet inexorably bound by not just blood, but duty, community, and even love. Olive exasperates everyone she meets, but remains singularly unforgettable in her hunger for connection and appreciation.

     
  • The cover of the book The Burgess Boys

    The Burgess Boys

    A Novel

    Set in part outside New England, Strout’s next book follows two brothers, both lawyers who have successfully escaped to New York City, as they are forced to confront their pasts, shared and separate, when they are called back home by their sister. Bob and Jim return to Shirley Falls (the setting of Amy and Isabelle) after their nephew is accused of a hate crime, and his mother asks them to help save her son. Once the brothers come home, the family’s current crisis is soon competing with past resentments, misunderstandings, and long-held hurts.

     
  • The cover of the book My Name Is Lucy Barton

    My Name Is Lucy Barton

    A Novel

    Again setting her story partly in New York, Strout this time tells the story of a successful writer who reconsiders her past as she spends time in the hospital for an infection following an operation. Lucy’s mother sits vigil at her daughter’s bedside, providing Lucy comfort and reminding her of various characters from their shared past in Amgash, Illinois (another break from Strout’s traditional New England settings.) As Lucy remembers the pain of her lonely childhood and the fierce self-determination and desire for connection that inspired her to become a writer, she re-evaluates the meaning of happiness, success, and love.