Being a mother: Elizabeth Strout, Amy & Isabelle

Elizabeth Strout, Amy & Isabelle. Scribner/Simon & Schuster, 2016. First published in the USA, 1998

Elizabeth Strout’s first novel, Amy & Isabelle, anticipates relationships and themes she was to revisit in the two later novels of hers that I’ve posted on here (links at the end). She presents parent – child relations in particular as sclerotic.

Elizabeth Strout, Amy & Isabelle coverShirley Falls is a dull town, dominated by the mill on the filthy river. Isabelle is PA to one of its office managers – a dull, bald and overweitht married man with whom she’s secretly half in love, and who hardly notices her.

Isabelle is a snob. Although she never graduated from college, she’s created an image of herself as a cultivated, sophisticated woman who’s superior to the other women in the office. She disdains their petty bickering and factions and discourages intimacy. She’s like Strout’s later protagonists, Olive and Lucy: lonely, distressed and unhappy, longing for love and too acerbic and aloof to invite it.

Mother-daughter relationships and their tribulations feature centrally in Strout’s fiction. Part of Isabelle’s false persona results from a deeply shameful secret that she only reveals late in the novel. By then it’s too late to repair the damage she’s caused to her teenage daughter Amy’s view of her.

I’ve known mothers and daughters like this (and fathers and sons). They long for the other to love them, yet behave so hurtfully they become bitter and estranged.

It’s a more sprawling, less tightly structured novel than Olive or Lucy, but it has much of their pungency and raw emotion. Women can be supportive and loving towards each other, but it’s often adversity (usually caused by their menfolks’ unreliability and errancy) that brings out the best in them.

Isabelle had been emotionally scarred by events in her youth, and the ensuing emotional rigidity, shame and guilt led her to recreate herself in a way that prevents others, including Amy, from establishing intimacy and trust with her.

This changes a little towards the end and Isabelle finds that confronting and telling the truth can be therapeutic. But for Amy it’s maybe too late for that.

Strout’s prose shows signs of the precision and incisiveness that developed so well in the later novels. Here’s a random example. The crisis that has damaged Amy’s relationship with her mother has happened, and its fragility has not stood up to the stress:

[Isabelle is watching through her window as Amy approaches the house] The sight of her pained Isabelle. It pained her terribly to see her, but why?

Because she looked unhappy, her shoulders slumped like that, her neck thrust forward, walking slowly, just about dragging her feet. This was Isabelle’s daughter; this was Isabelle’s fault. She hadn’t done it right, being a mother, and this youthful desolation walking up the driveway was exactly proof of that.

The free indirect style gives us insight into the turmoil and guilt in Isabelle’s mind. She has a flash of perception, realising she has turned her daughter into a version of her own unhappy, unfulfilled self. But then the paragraph shifts gear:

But then Amy straightened up, glancing toward the house with a wary squint, and she seemed transformed to Isabelle, suddenly a presence to be reckoned with. Her limbs were long and even, her breasts beneath her T-shirt seemed round and right, neither large or small, only part of some pleasing symmetry; her face looked intelligent and shrewd. Isabelle, sitting motionless in her chair, felt intimidated.

This is so well done. The narrative subtly reveals that Isabelle has misread the signs – Amy’s ‘wary squint’ sets off this new line of thought and tone.

It introduces the duplicity of Isabelle’s sadness and sense of failure; when Amy ‘straightens up’ – the image is also carefully chosen – Isabelle has a painful epiphany. Amy has transcended the neediness her mother has instilled in her. She has the confidence – sexual and personal – that Isabelle had suppressed. And she envies it – envies her daughter’s intelligence and shrewdness, her confident independence. No wonder she feels ‘intimidated’.

Isabelle isn’t a monster. Parents are supposed to want their children to outgrow their need for them – to rejoice when they fledge and leave the nest. But Strout has the honesty to show that they also harbour a selfish desire for their offspring to keep on needing them. Their independence makes the mother redundant, and reinforces her sense of her own shortcomings – her futility. The lessons and painful growth take place on both sides; the difference is that Amy will continue to grow.

This might sound a bit gloomy – Strout is too astute to leave it there. She gives signs that Isabelle is also learning about herself, and is maybe capable of an honesty with herself that she’d hitherto smothered – and it was this dishonesty that had kept her from living fully.

It takes a writer of great maturity and sensitivity to succeed in conveying all this without coming across as preaching or apportioning blame.

My previous Elizabeth Strout posts: Olive Kitteridge HERE

My Name is Lucy Barton HERE