The oddly quiet period in very late December and early January, between Christmas and the day when schools start up again, has always felt like a kind of lockdown to me. At least since I started teaching and stopped going to New Year’s parties. Like a self-imposed seasonal lockdown, before we even knew what real lockdown felt like.
In the past, even if Hubby and I drove home to spend Christmas with my family, we’d come back a day or two after Christmas. That’s because I usually had a massive pile of final student projects to mark waiting on my desk, and my plan was to have them finished before classes started again. So the last week of my “holidays” would be spent with my head down marking for a few hours each day. That way the last three weeks of classes in January before exams started could be slightly more sane. And I did not have to face marking exams with a depressingly large pile of term work still to finish. It was self-preservation, really. A quiet week of work before the noisy real work started when the kids returned to class.
Since I retired from teaching, the week after Christmas and before the resumption of school still feels like a kind of self-imposed lockdown. A seasonal lockdown. A quiet time. Except without the marking. Instead consisting of days by the fire, reading what I want to read and not what I have to read, and skiing if we’re lucky enough to have had snow. This year there has been no snow for skiing. But lots of time in front of the fire with a book.
And one book that I’ve had waiting for me, waiting for this quiet contemplative week when I could give it my full attention, is the latest Elizabeth Strout novel, Lucy By the Sea. I am so glad I waited to read this. It is a wonderful book.
Elizabeth Strout is one of my favourite writers. I adore her characters with their quirks and their opinions. I love her rambling plots, which move back and forth in time, lurching forward and then doubling back upon themselves. As if Strout herself is sitting in a rocking chair, hands cupped around a mug of tea, trying to explain the story she wants to tell, and has just said, “No wait. Let me go back.” I love, love that. But I think, most of all, I love Strout’s simple but never simplistic prose. Laura Miller writing in The New Yorker refers to “the Shaker plainness of Strout’s prose.” I love that analogy. You can read Miller’s review of Lucy By the Sea here, if you’re interested.
Lucy By the Sea is all about Lucy Barton and her ex-husband William and their flight from New York at the beginning of the pandemic. When the rest of his family are barely aware of the dangers of Covid, William, the scientist, senses that things are bad -very bad. He convinces Lucy to go with him to a house he has rented in Maine. And there they ride out the worst of the next year and a bit. From their house by the sea they vicariously watch New York implode, witness the unrest that followed the death of George Floyd, and the violence of the January 6 assault on Capitol Hill.
But the historical and political events happen off stage. This is a book about domesticity… during lockdown. The plot of the book happens mostly at home. And, as in all the books in this series, much of it happens in Lucy’s head. She tries to make sense of life: her life, and William’s life, and the lives of their children and friends.
As their isolation story unfolds, William takes over the cooking. Lucy, having grown up in extreme poverty, doesn’t really understand food, doesn’t care much about good food. William tries new and different recipes each night. They walk. Sometimes they walk with friends. Always masked. Lucy describes other residents in the small Maine town, some of them resent the incomers from New York, some of them refuse to wear masks, or wear them improperly.
Lucy and William meet up with friends at a local takeout, eating at picnic tables, always outside. They travel to Connecticut where their daughters are living during lockdown. They sit on sun-loungers outside, masked, as William tries to convince their son-in-law’s father and mother, who have just flown in from Florida to NOT expose the children to possible infection. Eventually the reluctant in-laws, scoffing about their “Florida germs”, decamp to a hotel. Where it transpires that they both have covid.
And throughout, Lucy muses about life. The nature of empathy. Class in America. Racism. Friendship. Love. She feels empathy for those who are marginalized. She understands class, having been raised in the American underclass, having herself escaped the poverty of her childhood by winning a scholarship to university and then getting an education. But the isolation of lockdown makes her feel as if events in her life and in the world are not real. That maybe she is losing her grip. She can’t work. Or even read, for a time. What is happening to her? To her world?
As I read this novel I went back and read my own pandemic writings on the blog, my so-called “isolation diaries.” Strout perfectly captures what so many of us experienced. Not the trauma of those who worked on the front-lines during covid. But the helplessness of those of us who were told to simply stay home. The boredom and the loneliness, alternating with the energetic embarking on small projects, garden structures, new recipes, and all the time walking, walking, walking. The sometimes overwhelming fear for loved ones. The occasional wobbly weekend. And the sense of a world frozen in some ways, and careening out of control in others.
I’m so glad I waited until my own self-imposed seasonal lockdown to read Elizabeth Strout’s new book. If you like quietly wonderful, not shouty nor preachy books, you’ll love Lucy By the Sea. It’s a perfect book to read in January when the new year hasn’t had time to pick up a head of steam yet. When we’re all recovering from the restless, relentlessly festive season. When it’s time to light the fire, pour a nice hot cup of tea, and partake in a little quiet contemplation.
Have a look at this little video I saw on Tick Tock. @shifferdiane really gets January.
A couple of readers have asked if I have a complete list of books which I’ve reviewed or recommended on the blog. I’m sorry to say I have not. But I spent some time this week re-reading my blog posts from the past year and pulling out the books I suggested. Then I saw in my history on my library account that I had a whole bunch of books which Hubby and I both read but which never made it to the blog, for whatever reason.
I’ve listed below the titles to as many of the books I’ve read and loved this year as I can remember. And I’ve included links to the books if you want to purchase them. If I can figure out how to add another page to my blog and make it link up to the “categories” and all that technical stuff, I plan to start a comprehensive list going forward. Stay tuned.
Well, that’s it for me my literary friends. I must go and try to finish the assigned book for my book club meeting tomorrow. I know, I know… I never get my homework done on time anymore. I’d be interested if anyone out there has read any of the “pandemic books” that have come out in the past year or so. I know there are several. One reviewer was quite scathing about some of them. Not Strout’s book, though. He loved that one.
Here is the list of the books I read and talked about on the blog in the past year or so.
- Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall Trilogy
- Robert Galbraith’s The Ink Black Heart and Troubled Blood, and the rest of the Cormorant Strike series.
- Ann Cleeves The Rising Tide plus any or all of the Vera Stanhope series
- Vicki Laveau-Harvie The Erratics
- Tina Brown The Palace Papers
- Emma Donoghue The Pull of the Stars
- Elizabeth Strout Oh, William! and Lucy By the Sea. Plus the earlier Lucy books My Name is Lucy Barton and Anything Is Possible
- Peter Grainger Missing Pieces or any of the King’s Lake or D.C. Smith series.
- Mary Lawson A Town Called Solace
- Meg Mason Sorrow and Bliss
- Sarah Winman Still Life
- Richard Osman’s Thursday Murder Club series
- Some of my favourite “gentle reads”… Anita Brookner Hotel du Lac, Barbara Pym Excellent Women, Nancy Mitford The Pursuit of Love, Dorothy Whipple Someone at a Distance.
Here is a further list of books I read and loved and which did not (for whatever reason) make it into a blog post.
- Elly Griffiths The Locked Room and The Night Hawks. Or any of the Ruth Galloway series.
- Thomas King Deep House. Canadian/American mystery series with wonderful indigenous characters. I’ve waxed lyrical about King before on the blog before in this post.
- Marian Keyes The Break and Grown Ups. Even when tragedy strikes, Irish families are a hoot. And Keyes is a wonderful writer.
- Anthony Horowitz The Word Is Murder, A Line to Kill, The Sentence Is Death, and The Twist of a Knife. Hubby read these and I listened to them. Cool plot device, well written, often darkly funny. I love how the author is a character in the books.
- C.J. Sansom Dissolution, Dark Fire, and Sovereign. Hubby and I are both working our way through the Matthew Shardlake /Tudor mystery series, historical fiction set during the time of King Henry VIII.
- Victoria Abbott the Jordan Bingham mystery series. Once again, Hubby read and I listened. These so-called “book collector mysteries” are a light, fun read with lots of reference to vintage fashion and golden age mystery writers. What’s not to love?
P.S. All the book links in this post are affiliate links. If you make a purchase after clicking my link, I will earn a small commission which helps to pay for the blog.