Elizabeth Strout – Lucy by the Sea

Elizabeth Strout – Lucy by the Sea

When the pandemic hits New York, her ex-husband William convinces Lucy Barton to leave the city and to come to live with him in a house in a small town in Maine, by the sea. Lucy trusts Williams, in these fields he knows much better what to do and thus, she leaves her apartment behind, while their two daughters also flee the metropolis. Lucy experiences the first weeks and months like many of us did: life has come to a standstill, everybody is afraid of the fatal virus and interaction with human beings is reduced to the absolute minimum. However, this new situation also offers room for reflection and questioning decisions made, things said and done and all that ultimately matters in life.

I was not really sure if I was already willing to read a novel in which the pandemic was a central aspect while the virus is still raging. However, I totally adore Elizabeth Strout’s novels and since I have met Lucy Barton before, I was looking forwards to “Lucy by the Sea”. As anticipated, I found the novel a wonderful read, slow in pace, which was simply perfect for the time portrayed and the topic, and deeply reflective which I personally perceived just like an invitation for myself, to take some time and seize the chance of the standstill to look back and ponder on where I have come from and where I want to go to.

Apart from the new rules in life – keeping a distance, wearing a mask, obeying lockdown – Elizabeth Strout again focuses on the fragile and complex family bonds that her characters are born in and cannot escape. William finds a part of his family and gets closer when everybody is getting more distant; their daughters Chrissy and Becka have grown up and find a renewed sisterly bond. Lucy has to accept that the girls have become independent and do not need their mother that much anymore. But also the couples’ relationships are put to a test. William and Lucy have been friendly for some time after their divorce, but can living under the same roof work? Lucy comes to understand that love can take different forms and is expressed in diverse ways and loving also means that losing is hard.

Without a doubt one of this year’s absolute highlights. The protagonist feels like a dear and close friend and towards the end, I did not want the novel to stop, but just to go on forever. Elizabeth Strout, again, has not only captured the mood of the pandemic and chronicled our lives but also demonstrates her deep insight in our human condition and what makes us real humans.

Thanks for the free book PRH International.

Donna Leon – Give unto Others

Donna Leon – Give unto Others

When Commissario Guido Brunetti is contacted by his childhood neighbour, he is a bit perplexed and does not know what to do. Elisabetta Foscarini is worried about her daughter Flora. She does not provide any real details but Flora’s husband Enrico Fenzo makes her feel uncomfortable. The accountant has helped her husband Bruno to set up a charity but then suddenly left the project to take care of other clients. Her feeling might stem from Fenzo’s business contacts but she cannot really nail it down. Brunetti promises to look into the matter even though he is not convinced of any threat. Since life has become slow in Venice due to the pandemic, he and his team have got the time to investigate the matter. Just when the start digging, Flora’s veterinary clinic is vandalised and some animals are seriously harmed. Soon after, clever Signorina Elettra finds some remarkable facts about „Belize nel Cuore“, Bruno del Balzo’s charity.

Not a classic murder investigation for the Venetian Commissario. However, Donna Leon cleverly integrated the pandemic into the plot which slowed down life in the Italian city due to the lack of tourists. Thus „Give Unto Others“ differs quite from the other crime mysteries in the series but in my opinion, it is a lot more complex and interesting since it is not that obvious where the investigation will lead to and the characters, too, have a lot more depth.

What brings Elisabetta to Brunetti is quite vague at the beginning, neither does she really know where her uneasy feeling comes from nor does the detective know where exactly to start and to look. As it turns out, things are not what they seem and people have motives they successfully hide for a long time thus exploiting others reach their questionable aims.

Rapidly, the story develops into a financial crime novel which is complicated on the one hand, and, on the other, tells you a great deal not only about people but also about legislation. At the end, you have learnt a lot of things you actually did not really want to know and again, the thin line between legal and illegal reveals itself to be quite flexible depending on the point of view: what is morally questionable might be perfectly legal.

A thought provoking crime mystery that, again, I thoroughly enjoyed.

Louise Erdrich – The Sentence

Louise Erdrich – The Sentence

It is just a favour that Tookie wants to do for her grieving friend, admittedly, a well-paid favour since stealing the body of the lately deceased boyfriend can solve all of Tookie’s financial problems. Of course, things turn out as they always do and the young woman is sentenced to sixty years of prison. A good lawyer can bring her out after only a couple of them and as she spent most of her time reading, she starts to work in a bookshop. With her partner Pollox, she seems to be back on the good track of life, but sorting out her personal life does not sort out the world around her. And when simultaneously the pandemic hits, when police violence against people of colour escalates and becomes a public issue and, additionally, when the bookshop is haunted by the ghost of a former customer, Tookie has to handle a lot which threatens to bring back the angry young woman she once was.

Louise Erdrich has written maybe THE novel of the moment. „The Sentence“ not only integrates several current events such as the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement and America’s fragile state before the 2020 election, or questions of identity, but also mythological aspects, old stories told over generations and over continents, stories which have been around as long a mankind itself. It is also the account of one woman, a woman who made mistakes, who has not always been fair since she is strong-minded, but a woman who has the heart on the right side.

It is not easy to determine where to put the focus on when talking about the novel. It seems to be eclectic, yet, this is just like life itself. It feels overwhelming at times with all the things happening at the same time, conflicting narratives which make it hard to make sense of all around you.

What I liked best was how the pandemic was integrated into the story. The author well incorporated everyday questions – why are people bulk buying? how dangerous will the virus be? what will happen to the bookstore? – into the plot, not giving it too much room but authentically showing how it affected life. This is also where we see Tookie’s good heart when she worries about her customers and tries to find ways of providing them with further reading material.

The side line of the ghost was first a kind of gothic element but it ultimately triggers the question of identity. Tookie belongs to the indigenous population, which is simply a fact, yet, one that has a huge impact on the way her life went. With it comes the big question of racial appropriation which seems so easy to answer but actually isn’t always.

The protagonist craves normal in a time when nothing is normal. It is a year of a chain of nightmares that finally closes. “The Sentence” is also a book about how literature can provide an escape and possibly also answers when reality does not anymore.

Towards the end of a year, an absolute literary gem with a wonderful annexe.