Adèle Geras, aka WotN, has written more than 90 books for children of all ages and for adults. Her most recent novel is Dido. In this, her third, contribution to the Writer's Choice series, she writes about Elizabeth Strout's Amy and Isabelle.
Adèle Geras on Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout
Elizabeth Strout should be much better known in this country. Her name should be spoken in the same breath as those of Anne Tyler, Marilynne Robinson and Alice Munro. Like them, she writes about real people in recognizable settings with great literary skill, married to both readability and a refreshing absence of pretentiousness or obscurity for its own sake. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 for her third novel, Olive Kitteridge, but the Pulitzer seems not to cut very much ice in the UK and, besides, the cover was one of the most inappropriate I've ever seen. I have no idea how many copies it sold here, but I'm prepared to bet that it didn't do as well as it might have done. I recommend it to many, but almost everyone I speak to has never heard of it before, nor of its author.
Olive Kitteridge is the tale of a middle-aged retired Maths teacher. Olive taught for years at the local school in the small New England town where she lives. This brought her into contact with many of its citizens, either as pupils or as parents or friends and neighbours. She is married to Henry who works as a pharmacist in the drugstore. She has a beloved son. She is awkward, physically gawky and not particularly attractive. Her history unfolds in a series of short stories which, taken together, make up a novel full of small, everyday tragedies and epiphanies. Nothing explodes, no one travels to other universes or fights terrifying monsters, no historically or politically significant fictional canvasses are mapped for us, but nevertheless we are taken out of ourselves and into the lives of others where we see and understand what makes up the daily fabric of their existence; how they get through the days and nights.
Her second novel, Abide With Me, is about a clergyman who is left widowed quite suddenly. His young daughter is so traumatized by her mother's death that she stops speaking altogether. A woman called Connie housekeeps for him and helps to look after his child. The teacher at the primary school is drawn into the story. So are others in the congregation and gradually we learn what happened in the years leading up to the present day. Through every turn of the plot we have a sense of a community and its secrets being gradually exposed to our gaze. The book is written with economy and precision and is a brilliant account of bereavement, loss and gradual emergence from the darkness of mourning.
Strout's début novel, Amy and Isabelle, was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2000 and was briefly talked about and reviewed but somehow it didn't attract the hype and attention that catapults a book into bestsellerdom. I certainly wasn't driven to read it 10 years ago by a clamour of praise rising up from the assorted media.
Now that I have read it, I understand a little why this might have been the case. On the face of it, a novel about a mother and a daughter in a small New England mill town over the course of a hot summer and early autumn in the 1960s might not be exactly the stuff to set the literary landscape on fire. Haven't we been here before? Aren't relationships between mothers and daughters the stuff of a thousand schlocky, soapy, magaziney fictions? Well, yes, but also no. This is an outstanding novel that's almost impossible to describe. Everything you say about it is true but somehow not enough. It's a wonderful description of the tenderness, rage, resentment and love-and-hate-coexisting-at-the-same-time in the breast of a teenage girl. It analyzes, dissects and describes the feelings of a mother who's loving and fearful and also resentful, worried, insecure and out of place in the society in which she finds herself.
Isabelle is a single parent. We learn her history right at the end of the book in a scene which is one of the best depictions of female friendship that I've ever read, but we guess at some of it right from the beginning of the story. This doesn’t matter. Clichés you've come across in other novels of this kind might be recalled but this story is written and presented through characters whom you feel you've known intimately and in language that's lucid, resonant, simple and poetic. It's also crude where it needs to be and quite often funny too. The comedy comes mostly from the characters and in particular from Fat Bev, who is a kind of exuberant, over-the-top mother-figure to the women who work in the offices of the local mill, but in particular to her friend Dottie, and to Isabelle and Amy.
I'm not going to outline the details of the plot. This book has three things which make it special... Firstly (and this is a quality of Strout's work which appears in all her novels), I can’t think of another writer who so skilfully gives you a sense, as you're reading, of the whole community which surrounds the main characters. You end up knowing as much about the people in Shirley Falls as though you've lived there for years. You know which churches they go to, who their friends are, the relationship between one set of women and another. You know how they dress and where they have their teeth done. You know where they live and how their houses look. The geography of the town is clear to you. You have a place to wander about in, created for you by the writer and you go from scene to scene with a vivid sense of who's there and what it feels like to be in amongst the characters. This is true whether you're in the high school with Amy and her teachers or in the mill office with Isabelle and the women, where the boss, Avery Clark, sits all day in his 'fishbowl' looking out at the desks beyond his glass partition.
Secondly, Strout describes the weather and the passage of the seasons brilliantly. This might not seem like a big deal, but when it's done well, it adds a dimension of pleasure that's often missing. The summer she's telling us about is one of the hottest on record and we feel with the characters every single degree of the heat as it seems to flatten the town and all who live there. We rejoice when the weather changes at last, and the fact that this comes as the novel reaches its dénouement and mirrors the state of mind of the protagonists is something that's often been done before in literature, but it works most effectively when it’s done well and Strout does it to perfection.
Thirdly, and most importantly, Strout is a writer who's not afraid of emotions. This might seem an obvious thing to say. Of course, a novelist writing about different kinds of love is going to be dealing with strong emotions, but Amy and Isabelle have a complicated relationship which encompasses many different threads of feeling and the way these are braided together and how the strands then begin to unravel and are at last woven back together again is so subtly and carefully done that the result is never cloying or over-sentimental, but always expressed with care and the special elegance and poise that marks the writing. Sunt lacrimae rerum, though, and Strout is not afraid to say so and show us what they are.
I'm going to finish with a quotation from the novel. It comes towards the end of a harrowing time for both our main protagonists and expresses one of the main themes of this astonishingly accomplished and hugely enjoyable book.
It seemed to her (What was that sound? Only Fat Bev snoring) that kindness was one of God's greatest gifts: the fact that people, so many people, held within themselves the ability to be kind, really, was the work of God. How kind those women downstairs had been to her tonight! How kind the policeman had been earlier, the doctor on the telephone, the silent pharmacist (remembering only a large, white-coated bulk of a man). Yes, how kind people could be.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]