The best-known and certainly the most dramatic novel about a former spouse is probably Rebecca. Not every story about an ex features murder, infidelity, madness and arson (much as we may wish it to). Nonetheless, exes engender lasting feelings, irritation, resentment and occasional bursts of nostalgic affection probably chief among them. They make excellent fictional fodder.
This has been a great year for stories in which previous partners loom. In the spring came Katherine Heiny’s marvellous Early Morning Riser, featuring an ex-wife whose interfering and bossiness are softened by her delicious cooking. When she comes around to offer unsolicited advice to her successor, she brings an irresistible pot roast. I can’t recommend this book highly enough: it’s like an Anne Tyler, but with better jokes.
And now the peerless Elizabeth Strout has produced a novel in which a couple – formerly married to one another, since partnered with other people – fall into each other’s company once again, much to their bemusement. Like all Strout’s work, the apparently ordinary everyday life it describes conceals a multitude of secrets. Shame lies beneath the surface, not very deeply buried and sometimes sharply felt.
This is the third book featuring the character Lucy Barton. Revisiting old friends is something Strout likes to do: there are also two books about her deeply flawed heroine Olive Kitteridge. They may be read singly, but the accretion of detail which comes from the series offers the reader unusual richness.
William is Lucy’s first husband, the father of her children. Their marriage came to an end because of his unfaithfulness. Some time afterwards, Lucy remarried: at the time of this book she has lately been widowed. William’s much younger wife has left him. The two are alone in their New York apartments: encouraged by their grown-up daughters, they talk, meet and eventually set off on a road trip in search of William’s family history.
Strout is acutely sensitive to the long shadow cast by our families. They are where we come from and, try as we might, they cannot be wholly escaped. Lucy has managed to create a calm, middle-class life for herself, despite her chaotic beginnings. Nevertheless, her origins continue to weigh upon her. Here we learn that William, too, had a difficult start, one which his own mother attempted to smooth over in her tidy style of dress and speech and restrained good conduct.
This comes as a surprise to Lucy, as it does to him. Strout’s theme – expressly stated, at the book’s end – is that, however well we think we know another person, we can never understand everything about them. Love may be blind and it may blind us. Lucy’s dispassion for William allows her to see him more clearly than she ever did while they were married. To know someone else very deeply is of course to feel compassion for that individual. Even a person about whom we may harbour a great deal of ambivalence – and a cheating ex-husband is surely a prime candidate for such alloyed feeling – loses their spikes in the face of their true humanity.
Not that Lucy is soppy. On the contrary, she is refreshingly acerbic. Elizabeth Strout’s fans do not take up her books expecting sweetness. In Olive Kitteridge she presents a prickly, self-centred, difficult woman, a person not above snooping, nor acts of slyness. It could be argued that this makes Olive an important contribution to feminist fiction, a woman every bit as complicated as any male depicted by a Phillip Roth or a John Updike. I am not convinced that Strout had any such goal in mind, she is just too clever and observant to sugar-coat. Thus, when William reveals that he has kept some money he came into, money with a morally dubious source, Lucy doesn’t fail to notice.
And yet this is a book with a great deal of heart. Lucy cannot change the past, of course, but the insight and sympathy which older age have brought her allow her to re-evaluate painful old memories. If she cannot forget, she can at least try to forgive. Not only William, but his mother, too. Indeed, the portrait of the former mother-in-law – newly rounded by what Lucy and William discover about her early life – is one of the book’s many strengths.
It’s said that the ideal arc of a Hollywood romance is: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back. Oh William! resists so neat an ending. But oh Elizabeth Strout! You’ve written another wonderful book.
Cressida Connolly is an author and journalist.
This article first appeared in the October 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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