Elizabeth Strout Reading List
In My Name is Lucy Barton, the narrator’s writing teacher tells her that everybody has one story, and they tell it over and over again.
For Elizabeth Strout, that story is of family – of people who love each other, even as they cause each other pain. Each of her novels tells the story of a different family. For the reader, reading Strout is like unlocking a psychological puzzle, as she peels back the layers of what makes mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, brothers and sisters alternately adore and torment one another.
One of the hardest things in life, I think, is to really get to know our parents. They lived much of their lives before we were born, and the hardships and complications they face are very hard for a child, even an adult child, to understand. But in “Lucy Barton,” Strout sets up a situation where a mother and daughter get to know each other again – the daughter is gravely ill, the mother is called to her bedside and they spend five days talking pretty much just to each other.
Elizabeth Strout’s breakout novel, 1998’s Amy and Isabelle, was another mother daughter story. Amy and Isabelle, daughter and mother, are marooned together in a working class New England town. The working class is largely Catholic, and the town is run by a wealthy WASP community living in the enclave of Oyster Point. Amy and Isabelle are the in-betweens.
Isabelle is a secretary to the boss at the local mill. She is secretly in love with him. Amy has a secret, too – for years she has ”wanted a different mother,” someone who ”looked like mothers in television ads.”
Then Amy also commits a romantic transgression – she falls in love with her high school math teacher, who alternately plays on her affections and awakens her to the possibility of a life of fuller awareness.
This book showcased the main theme in all Strout’s books, of people who love each other over the long haul – not even tragedy can tear them apart. Strout also excels at portraying mundane moments of everyday life with what one reviewer called a “heartbreaking clarity.” She gives the lives of everyday people meaning and insight.
Next up is Abide with Me, Strout’s 2006 novel.
The family in this book is a widower and his small daughter. Tyler Caskey, a Congregational minister in a small New England town, loses his wife and is left to raise his 5-year-old daughter. As Tyler grieves, his daughter begins to behave oddly, which attracts the attention of the town gossips (Strout is great at portraying small-town gossips).
Tyler’s way of dealing with loss is to re-read the works of the Lutheran martyr, the pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a minister who died at the hands of the Nazis for opposing their anti-Christian creed. An inspiring figure, to be sure, but it’s tough work to compare yourself to a man who was basically a 20th century saint. Tyler doesn’t really know how to ask for help with his daughter, except through prayer. Strout does a great job of portraying Tyler’s faith sympathetically, but without implying that it’s the answer to all his problems.
An Elizabeth Strout reading list wouldn’t be complete without a mention of her 2013 novel Olive Kitteridge. I’ve talked about it many times – it’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece.
Olive is a teacher in a small New England town, and the book is a group of linked short stories that feature Olive and her fellow townspeople, family, students, colleagues. Olive doesn’t have what you would call friends – she is another Strout character who loves deeply, but is quite awful at trying to express it. But she does have an empathy that comes through in the clinch.
If you haven’t read Olive Kitteridge or only saw the HBO series based on the book, which I think did not do Olive justice, run out and get it right now.
In 2013 Strout turned her focus to another family relationship – siblings – for her novel The Burgess Boys.
The Burgess Boys is set in the fictional town of Shirley Falls, the setting for Strout’s first novel, Amy and Isabelle. It’s about two brothers and their sister. It opens as the brothers, now grown up, each practicing law and living in the New York area, get a call from their sister, Susan, a tough, blunt optometrist who has remained in Shirley Falls. Her teenaged son, Zach, is in serious trouble – after committing a dumb teenaged prank, he’s been accused of perpetrating a hate crime.
The brothers have a difficult relationship. Jim, the older, makes fun of the younger one, Bob, calling him “slob-dog” and “knucklehead” and basically treating him with big-brother little-brother disdain. Jim is a successful corporate lawyer. Bob, several rungs down the societal pecking order, works for a legal aid society. As they converge to try to help Susan (Bob’s twin), the two men put their legal skills to work to try to help Zach.
Strout was trained as a lawyer and is married to one, so she handles the legal aspects of this story with great skill. But the underlying family secret that shaped Jim and Bob’s relationship is what gives The Burgess Boys its power. As with all Strout’s books, there is a lot of pain in this novel, but as with the others, there’s also reconciliation and even a kind of grace.
Finally, I just want to mention that Strout’s novels remind me of the work of Marilynne Robinson, one of my favorite authors. Robinson’s great trio of novels about a small-town preacher in Iowa, starting with Gilead, also portray the entire range of human nature through the story of one family. We are lucky to have both these wonderful writers working to help us understand what family is all about.