Lucy Barton’s Experiments in Empathy


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In Elizabeth Strout’s “Lucy by the Sea” (Random House), the fourth of her novels concerning a writer named Lucy Barton, the title character meets a man who tells her that he loved her memoir. His wife read the book, too, and thought it was “about mother-daughter stuff,” but he disagrees. “Maybe if you didn’t come from—well, from poverty,” he explains, “your mind just goes over it, and you think it’s about mothers and daughters, which it is, but it’s really, or it was to me, about trying to cross class lines in this country.” Lucy, who will soon consider this man her closest friend in Maine, where she has gone to ride out the pandemic, feels surpassingly gratified to hear this. “Thank you,” she replies, “for getting what that book was really about.” During the fractious year to come, Lucy will find plenty of occasions to contemplate class.

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. Despite powerful moments of intuition—that her son-in-law’s father has contracted the coronavirus, that her daughter is contemplating an affair—Lucy, who’s in her sixties, keeps telling herself that she knows nothing. It becomes an unspoken article of faith for her, and a humble spur to her curiosity.

The novel begins with William, Lucy’s first husband, from whom she is long divorced, plucking her from her mournfully comfortable existence in New York City, in the apartment she once shared with her late and much loved second husband. William, a parasitologist, recognizes the impending threat of the coronavirus sooner than Lucy does, and also exhorts their two daughters, married and living in Brooklyn, to get out of the city. One of them decamps to her in-laws’ house in Connecticut; the other soon departs as well, after learning that her husband has been unfaithful and had been planning to leave her. William and Lucy, companionable friends who have travelled together lately, relocate to a house perched on a cliff over the rocky shore of Crosby, Maine, the fictional home of Olive Kitteridge, a character featured in two other Strout novels.

Lucy is as soft as Olive is flinty, subject to panic attacks and easily frightened by anything that reminds her of her childhood, in Amgash, Illinois. In Strout’s previous novel, “Oh, William!,” she accompanies her ex on a road trip through northern Maine, where the isolation triggers one of her attacks. The perpetual question of the Lucy Barton novels—three are narrated by Lucy, and one, the ironically titled “Anything Is Possible,” is a collection of linked stories depicting the lives of people stuck back in Amgash—is whether escape can ever truly be achieved. Lucy got out of Amgash. She has travelled all over the world for her successful career, and she has lived in New York, a city she loves, for decades. But she doubts that she will ever shake the “fear and loneliness” of her childhood, when she and her siblings were half starved, shunned by classmates for their poverty, and physically abused by their mother.

Lucy and William, holed up together, far from their doted-upon daughters and getting on each other’s nerves, revisit the tensions of their marriage. He tires of hearing her talk about the depressing plight of her brother, who still lives in the house they grew up in, without a partner or lover or even much in the way of friends. Lucy finds herself hating William every evening after dinner, because he doesn’t really listen to her, or register things he ought to:

Each night William made something different. He made pasta sauce and he made pork chops, he made meatloaf and he cooked salmon. But he also made a mess in the kitchen and it was my job to clean up, which I did. He wanted a lot of praise for every meal he made—I noticed that—and so I praised him to the skies. It felt to me like I praised him to the skies, but he always asked, even after I had praised him, “So you liked it, it was good?”

“It was more than good,” I would say. “It was wonderful.” And then I’d get up to clean the kitchen.

Like many urban refugees during the pandemic, they attract the animus of locals. Someone puts a cardboard sign reading “GET OUT OF HERE NEW YORKERS!” on William’s car, and a woman yells at Lucy in the supermarket parking lot. Lucy scolds William for not being “nice” enough to her after this incident: “William, I hated getting yelled at!” He snaps, “Nobody likes getting yelled at, Lucy.”

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 will “love” or “hate” someone for a fleeting gesture, or be plunged into despair by a tiny setback—and she does tend to harp on the same preferences: she hates being cold, doesn’t care about food, dislikes the smell of other people’s houses. She is an utterly believable mixture of solipsism and sympathy, just as William is both an indifferent confidant and a stalwart protector. “Lucy, yours is the life I wanted to save,” he tells her, and then he buys down quilts to keep her warm.

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. “It was as though the racism in this country had suddenly exploded, hurling forth,” she muses. “But people were caring about this! Many were.”

Class, however, is a matter with which Lucy has a firsthand acquaintance. A character in “Anything Is Possible” recalls a line from Lucy’s memoir: “People were always looking to feel superior to someone else.” The memoir, which seems to be a book much like the first of Strout’s Lucy novels, “My Name Is Lucy Barton,” recounts the deprivation and violence of her childhood. Lucy’s lifelong sense of being “invisible” is linked both to her status at school and to the fact that the only mirror her family owned was small and hung too high on a wall for the children to see themselves in it. At one point, the Bartons lived in a poorly heated garage, an experience that instilled in Lucy her horror of the cold. So she spent more and more of her time at school, before and after classes, where she was supported by kindly adults, including the guidance counsellor who helped her secure a college scholarship.

Lucy’s sullen sister Vicky works at a nursing home, a difficult job made risky by the pandemic. She takes money from Lucy, and resents her for it. Vicky calls her to announce that she’s joined a fundamentalist church where the congregation members don’t wear masks, because “it’s the government trying to force us to do that.” Vicky gets her news not from TV, which once showed her the irksome spectacle of her fancy sister being interviewed on morning shows, but from unspecified other sources. When Vicky inevitably gets COVID and has to be hospitalized, Lucy texts her, “I love you,” and Vicky responds, “I know you think you do.” Later, she adds, “Lucy you’ve always thought you were better than me. And I think you have been very selfish in your life.” Lucy accepts this more meekly than most of Strout’s readers will. Compounding her distress is the knowledge that Vicky’s academically gifted daughter, who, like Lucy, won a scholarship, lasted only a year at college before going home to a job at the same facility where her mother works.

All tales of class mobility require severed roots, even for people whose families support the transition. Lucy can’t assuage Vicky’s feelings of rejection, but in “Lucy by the Sea” she befriends two working-class Mainers through friendliness and circumspection. One is a neighbor, whom she suspects put the sign on William’s car when the pair first arrived in Crosby. The other, Charlene, a fellow-volunteer at a food pantry, is a widow herself and a cleaner at the retirement community where Olive Kitteridge lives. Lucy notices a bumper sticker for “the current president” on Charlene’s car the day they meet but says nothing. Lucy and Charlene take walks together, commiserate about their inability to remember things, and form a pact to warn the other if she seems to be losing her mind. “I’m glad we don’t talk politics,” Charlene says to Lucy one day. “We never have to talk politics,” Lucy replies. Many of the stories in “Anything Is Possible” illustrate the pain of Midwesterners who are unable to communicate, but here is a testimonial to the value of reticence.

The culmination of Lucy’s experiments in empathy comes on January 6th. After glancing at the television coverage of the Capitol riot, Lucy can’t bear to watch more. The images dredge up a memory. She was once invited to speak to a classroom of well-off college students:

I was supposed to talk to them about my memoir, which was about growing up poor. But the students would not look at me. And because they would not look at me, I became what I thought they were thinking I was: an old woman who had written about coming from poverty.

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