The Pandemic Novel That’s Frozen in Time

Stories that focus on the minor quirks of daily life can paradoxically help us see societal pain more clearly.

Book that turns into a paint smear
Tyler Comrie / The Atlantic

During the spring of 2020, I found myself thinking a lot about the fact that I was living through a historic disaster. I read about past wars and crises, trying to calm myself with the knowledge that prior generations had been through worse. I can see now that I was distracting myself from my own day-to-day. I’d just rescued a dog who cried in the night and was frightened of people she didn’t know, and my neighbor was a dealer whose clients liked to linger in the hallway without masks. When I think about the early pandemic now, it takes effort not to conjure the memories that everyone I know shares—stockpiling beans, improvising face coverings, wiping down the light switches with bleach—and to remember, instead, how much time I spent in those months trying to soothe my dog while she barked at maskless strangers in my building.

Ignoring the idiosyncrasies of our daily experiences is startlingly easy. Modern online life, with its flattening megaphone, encourages us to process personal chaos in terms of societal pain. Fiction, at its best, is an antidote to that impulse. Even sweeping, multi-protagonist novels can illuminate the fine details of their characters’ worlds, throwing them into relief against the broader background of collective social experience. By focusing on the mundane and minor quirks of individual lives, fiction can, paradoxically, encourage readers to recall momentous and dramatic events, with the clarity those events deserve. 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. It takes place during the first year of the pandemic, which Strout evokes in such careful detail that the book can feel like a time capsule.

In its first pages, Lucy, who is the protagonist of two of Strout’s earlier works, My Name Is Lucy Barton and Oh William!, and a frequently invoked presence in another, Anything Is Possible, gets spirited out of Manhattan by her ex-husband William, a scientist who realizes early how devastating the virus is going to be. Lucy is grieving the death of her second husband and lets William whisk her off to coastal Maine, where she watches in disbelief as COVID-19 rages through New York. The isolation of lockdown starts to significantly change Lucy’s life, as well as those of her adult daughters, Chrissy and Becka, to whom she is very close.

Lucy by the Sea is among the first COVID novels to which the pandemic is plainly integral, rather than seeming to have been added halfway through. Indeed, 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 indoors. At first, Lucy, like me and so many others, is unwilling to change her behavior, wondering, en route to Maine, if William is paranoid for pumping gas with plastic gloves on. Within weeks, she sees on TV that New York has “suddenly exploded with a ghastliness that I seemed almost not able to take in.”

Her numbness and horror are profoundly familiar. Countless Americans experienced the start of the pandemic in just the same way. But that very 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.

In some ways, Lucy is an ideal character to tackle an ongoing loss like the pandemic. She understands intimately the minute and strange effects that world events can have on individual lives. In earlier works, Strout gives readers a kaleidoscopic view of Lucy’s deprived childhood in Amgash, Illinois, which comes up often in Lucy by the Sea. Lucy is the daughter of a World War II veteran whose wartime trauma is, to the young Lucy, both unusual and inexplicable. In her parents’ home, love was so scarce and confusion so common that, decades later, small and straightforward kindnesses bowl her over. Big or complex ones, meanwhile, are often impossible for her to even see.

One of the novel’s best early scenes manifests both of these dynamics at once. It begins with Lucy in a Maine parking lot, sitting in William’s car, which still has New York plates. A woman yells at her to “get the hell out of our state,” and William, when told about it, doesn’t care. Lucy, upset, later confronts him about his seeming disinterest; he tells her that he’s simply too exhausted from worrying that she’ll die of the coronavirus to also be concerned about “some woman [who] yelled at you.” The moment is wrenching in its layered specificity. It does, of course, draw on a particular challenge of pandemic life—the class tension, and urban-rural tension, that was generated when New Yorkers like Lucy and William fled for places like coastal Maine—but it’s not about that difficulty. It’s about Lucy’s inability to understand big love, and William’s struggle to express his feelings on a scale small enough for her to see.

That exchange is a rarity, though. Other, more standard pandemic scenes dominate. Lucy resents the fact that William, who does the cooking, “made a mess in the kitchen” and “wanted a lot of praise for every meal he made”; she goes for a lot of solitary walks. Those aren’t unusual ways of reacting to the pandemic, or to being confined with another person in unprecedented circumstances. In fact, the very familiarity of these moments prevents them from being about Lucy and William in the way that the get-the-hell-out-of-Maine scene is. Lucy’s gripes about William’s messy cooking don’t deepen our understanding of her; they reminded me, a bit too keenly, of the moment in 2020 when my boyfriend very gently told me that if I didn’t start washing my dishes, he was going to lose it.

Lucy by the Sea has enough such recognizable moments that it can be tough to keep track of Lucy and William’s unusual relationship—quarantining with your ex-husband isn’t exactly standard—or even to see them as the painstakingly developed characters that they are. Relatively late in the book, once the country has reopened somewhat, Lucy thinks to herself that “the childhood isolation of fear and loneliness would never leave me. My childhood had been a lockdown.” Yet Lucy’s early-pandemic isolation, instead of feeling inflected by that past, seems little different from anyone else’s.

That reach for common ground is surely intentional. Part of Strout’s project, it seems, is to remind readers of what the spring of 2020 was like for us, or perhaps to give us the sensation of reliving it alongside Lucy. Yet central to the novel is Lucy’s aloneness, her feeling that no one is living alongside her. When she was married to William, this tendency led to conflict. In Maine, it cuts her off from him, though her pandemic numbness at first hides this development.

It also temporarily obscures the absence of real conversation between William and Lucy, who are both trapped in what Lucy thinks of as the privacy of grief. William is mourning his recent divorce, which, alongside a battle with prostate cancer, has taken away his sense of vitality. Meanwhile, neither William’s fierce affection for Lucy—reawakened, perhaps, by the divorce—nor a suite of budding friendships can decrease Lucy’s longing for her dead husband, or the loss she feels as her daughters begin to rely on her less. It’s very possible that William, their father, would be able to empathize with Lucy’s feeling that she’s grown extraneous to their girls’ lives if she shared it with him, but she doesn’t. Lucy almost never shares.

Lucy sometimes hides her feelings about her specific problems inside the horror of the pandemic. In one scene, Lucy’s daughter Becka calls in tears to report that her husband is cheating. “I can almost not record this,” Strout writes in Lucy’s voice, “it was so painful.” From that moment on, it’s plain that Lucy, a novelist and memoirist, is deciding what to tell us. At one point, she notes, “Becka had gone up to the roof of their building in order to call me. In the background were the sounds of sirens, one after another.” Here, Strout lets the reader see Lucy using communal pain—the awful sound of ambulances heading to overwhelmed emergency rooms—to distract from the specific pain of her daughter’s misery. For the first time, the novel acknowledges the human habit of hiding from the personal in the collective. Shortly thereafter, it starts undermining that tendency.

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. Once Lucy recognizes that she and William are trapped within the privacy of separate griefs, the borders of that privacy weaken. They begin discussing their daughters and the pandemic more, turning both subjects into living, active pieces of their relationship. The novel, in turn, begins to delve into the less immediately recognizable details of Lucy’s life during the pandemic. Lucy starts making specific and visible choices: to run the risk of volunteering at a local food bank, say, or to not argue with her sister’s decision to join a church at which no one wears masks. 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.