After suffering through Pearl, was I ever grateful for Elizabeth Strout's excellent Amy and Isabelle. When I was combing the shelves for something to read, I had forgotten that Strout wrote the excellent Olive Kitteridge, and you can see similar themes in her earlier novel: small town life, history repeating itself, the problems of parenthood, mother-daughter relationships (even though Olive had a son, correct?), so I should say parent/child relationships.
Regardless, Amy and Isabelle remains a thoughtful, engrossing novel that takes place, I think as the 60s are turning into the 70s. Isabelle, the mother, and Amy, the daughter, each live with their own internal restrictions that affect their relationship. Isabelle is strict, complex, sad -- she tells everyone she's a widow, but you know that's not the whole story -- and is in love with her boss at the shoe mill where she works as a secretary. So proper she always wears pantyhose in the heat of summer (the hottest on record), her thin brown hair consistently pulled into a French twist, she's unprepared for the issues that arise over her daughter: typical teenage stuff, lying, inappropriate love affairs, and then a shock that changes everything.
Amy's naive in an intelligent way. She was raised by an honest, forthright person (for the most part) and believes that when someone says something, they mean it. And her good heart, her good nature, gets her into a situation that ultimately disappoints her, it's heartbreaking for both mother and daughter.
Strout has a gift for small town life, like in Olive Kitteridge, she intersperses the story of the main character with other colourful people -- people like Amy's best friend Stacy, her parents, the church women and a truly delightful character called Fat Bev (who comes from French Canadian stock; naturally).
Shirley Falls, Maine might be experiencing a heat wave but the weather isn't the only thing stagnating. As the summer progresses, and as the lies pile up both for Amy and for Isabelle, it's a relief when the truth rains down, both metaphorically and literally -- the storm breaks not just the weather, and it's glorious. The novel itself reads like that moment just after a storm when everything feels fresh and renewed. I honestly enjoyed this novel so much that I spent the few spare minutes finishing it yesterday morning when I should have still been sleeping. I did regret this for a moment when the RRBB had such a rough night last night, but good lord, it was a good read. I honestly think that Alice Munro is an excellent comp for Strout, so if you're a fan, I'd be curious to see what someone else thinks.
READING CHALLENGES: What else? Off the Shelf!
WHAT'S UP NEXT: I started Joyce Maynard's The Good Daughters and am already finding it a bit lacking. The prose feels a little sloppy and repetitious at the moment, but I'm hoping the further I get into the actual story, the more this will abate.