Like many others, I was blown away by Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. I thought it a remarkable set of linked short stories that came together as a portrait of a peculiar and—to me—fascinating woman. So I went looking for her earlier novels, including this, her first novel.
Isabelle and her 16-year-old daughter, Amy, inhabit an uncomfortable edge of the small town of Shirley Falls, Maine. On the eastern side of the river lies Oyster Point, the part of town where the professional classes live with its simple Congregational church. The western side, known as the Basin, is dominated by the mill and the Catholic church. Although Isabelle works in the mill’s office, she chose to live in Oyster Point, with dreams of moving up in the world, but in essence stranding herself and her daughter between two worlds.
As the story opens, Isabelle’s desire for quiet and order and respectability, as well as her close relationship with her daughter, have been ruthlessly thwarted. Amy, who is working in the mill’s office for the summer, is in disgrace and it has something to do with a Mr. Robertson coming to town.
The opening is actually quite interesting. None of the characters appears on the first page. Instead, it is a description of all the strangeness of that summer: the terrible heat that dried up the river, leaving the stench of the mill’s effluence; the crops that didn’t grow right; the UFOs that had been sighted up north. It’s a different sort of in media res opening: we immediately know that the time is out of joint, with no one to set it right.
While Amy’s actions seem to have been the cause of the disruptions in her and Isabelle’s lives, the story takes us deeper into the pretenses and fantasies of all the characters as we move backward and forward in time. Amy and her new friend Stacy have banded together as outsiders at school, sneaking into the woods during breaks to smoke cigarettes. Amy envies Stacy her boyfriend, but doesn’t recognise her friend’s morning sickness for what it is. Her solid world is rocked as Amy tries to come to terms with her emerging sexuality and to find a place for herself other than the one her mother has prepared for her.
I am tired of glut of novels about middle-aged and older men falling in love with teenaged girls. Oh their joy and heartbreak. Oh their cruel, middle-aged and boring wives. How refreshing to have here, for once, the story from the girl’s point of view. And it is brilliantly done. So many details took me back to my own teen years, my confused and inchoate yearnings.
I love the portrait of Isabelle, hamstrung by her own yearnings, trying to break out of her narrow world. The portraits of the other women in the office, Fat Bev and Dottie and the others, are equally superb. I knew women like these when I worked in a factory. I love the way they rely on each other and the competitions and kindnesses they offer each other. As Avery Clark’s secretary, Isabelle sits among them but is in a superior position, isolated and stranded at work as at home. Strout occasionally soars up to the 10,000-foot level and gives us an omniscient view of the townsfolk as a whole, as in the first page. This unusual tactic isolates Isabelle and Amy even more, denying them even the empathy of the reader.
Although I’ve not lived in a small town, I recognise the way lives are intertwined, the way you cannot hide from your mistakes. I recognise the feuds and the friendships, the shifting alliances. I feel as though I’ve lived another life.
What book about small town life have you read?