When I was working on A Grandmother’s ABC Book, I worried that sections about COVID would be old news by the time the book came out. Revising, waiting for feedback, and inevitable delays increased my worry. Unfortunately, as we now know, COVID is not quite passé. It’s hanging around in our world, with hundreds dying every day, and in our vivid memories of isolation and lockdown. And sometimes in our grief.
Of course, COVID is cropping up in books, and I’ve just read two good ones: The Sentence, by Louise Erdrich, and Lucy by the Sea, by Elizabeth Strout.
Because I hate to know anything about a novel before I read it, I’m not going to risk ruining these for you. I’ll speak generally. The Sentence is for people who love reading and bookstores. Set in a store very much like Erdrich’s Birch Bark Books in Minneapolis, The Sentence features a cast of original and sometimes hilarious bookstore denizens, including a fictional bookstore owner named Louise, who pops in and out of the story. The humor somehow holds its own amid the sadness of the pandemic and the horrors of George Floyd’s murder and subsequent violence, which take place very near the bookstore. The book ends with a long list of books “recommended” by the novel’s main character, a list worth the price of the book.
Lucy by the Sea features Lucy Barton, the novelist-protagonist of Strout’s earlier books, My Name Is Lucy Barton, Anything Is Possible, and Oh William. It’s helpful but not essential to have read the previous books in order to appreciate Lucy by the Sea. Strout fans will enjoy cameos from other books: Olive Kitteridge and Bob Burgess. (I may have found these appearances a little cute. Not sure what to think.)
The Lucy books are like peeling an onion. You perceive intimations of trauma in My Name Is Lucy Barton, but they’re nebulous. Each subsequent book reveals more about Lucy’s painful childhood. You’re brought up to date about her later life as well, including her marriages. Like the earlier books, Lucy by the Sea concerns, in part, parenthood. How do we raise children? How do we relate to them as adults? Aging and COVID force Lucy to confront mortality.
Both Erdrich and Strout evoke the ignorance, fear, and weirdness of the lockdown, as well as some of the blessings, if you were lucky. Sometimes isolation was a relief. Sometimes it got you out into nature. Sometimes it gave you time to read. And both authors vividly show how the epidemic has been much, much harder on some people than on others.