Wow, that was one intense and emotional read.
In Amy and Isabelle, a mother (Isabelle) struggles with her 16-year-old daughter Amy’s emerging sexuality. Isabelle is a single parent, focused on making ends meet and doing what’s right for her daughter. But she is completely unaware of Amy’s true thoughts and feelings, and of what she gets up to during and after school. Amy falls hard for her new math teacher, Mr. Robertson, and he takes advantage of her. The story opens after their relationship is discovered, fills in the months leading up to that point, and then addresses the aftermath of discovery.
This was an emotionally charged story on many levels. Amy’s naiveté, her strong desire for independence, her loathing of parental authority, and her immaturity that led to unhealthy decisions … these all rang true to me. And Isabelle. Poor Isabelle, trying so hard to forge a healthy relationship with her daughter, but alienating her instead, and unwittingly passing on some of her own life mistakes. As the mother of teenage daughters myself, I could feel her pain. Isabelle’s response to Amy’s relationship with Mr. Robertson absolutely tore me apart: a single act of uncontrolled anger nearly destroyed her relationship with Amy.
In the wrong hands, this story could be trite and overblown. But Elizabeth Strout has amazing talent. First, she writes beautiful descriptive prose, putting the reader right into the scene:
It rained lightly for two more days and then the sky suddenly cleared just as darkness fell, leaving for a few moments a strip of luminescent afterglow along the horizon from a sunset that had not been seen. … By early morning a delicate strip of clouds high overhead looked like a thin layer of frosting spread across the side of some blue ceramic bowl. Mourning doves cooed unseen in the fine light; cardinals and hermit thrushes darted from one tree to another, calling out. (p. 246)
Strout also develops rich, complex characters and relationships. Take, for example, the women Isabelle works with in the office at a local mill:
So there were a variety of joys, large and small, taking place throughout the town, including a hearty laugh between Dottie Brown and Fat Bev as they sat at their desks in the office room, the kind of laugh (in this case regarding Dottie Brown’s mother-in-law) that comes from two women who have known each other for many years, who take comfort and joy in the small, familiar expressions of one another, and who feel, once the laugh has run its course — with an occasional small giggle still left, and a tissued patting of the eyes — a lingering warmth of human connection, the belief that one is not, after all, so very much alone. (p. 125)
But perhaps most powerful is her unique way of foreshadowing. She’ll drop a tiny detail into the story, one that seems inconsequential until she adds another tiny detail, and then another, each many pages apart. It’s a bit like adding hot sauce to chili: add a drop, taste, add another drop, taste, add another drop, and suddenly your mouth is on fire. I found myself scrutinizing every tiny detail: was this one important? Where was she going with this? She’s not going there, is she?! In this way she built up parallel stories of mother and daughter to an intense climax. And at that point I had to set the book aside, breathe deeply, and go hug my own daughters.