Study Guide

Amy and Isabelle

by Elizabeth Strout

Amy and Isabelle Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Elizabeth Strout’s first novel, Amy and Isabelle, is about desires, disappointments, and secrets and features a single mother, Isabelle Goodrow, and her sixteen-year-old daughter Amy. Both have needs which they hide from each other, until Amy is caught in a sexual encounter with one of her teachers and the mother and daughter’s relationship changes.

The story takes place in Shirley Falls, a mill town in Maine that is divided by a river. Amy and Isabelle live on one side of the river as the exceptions to the well-off residents who also live there, including Amy’s friend Stacy Burrows and Isabelle’s boss at the mill, Avery Clark. The river embodies the gap between the Congregationalist upper class on the Oyster Point side and the Catholic lower class on the Basin side. The fact that it smells signifies the unsavory behavior on both sides.

Through various points of view, mainly Isabelle’s, the reader is shown the relationships that fuel the plot. When the story begins, Isabelle and Amy have lived in a former carriage house for fourteen years. They moved there when Amy was two years old, for Isabelle wanted to find work and a husband. Prior to the move, she had been attending a teachers’ college in another town while her mother looked after Amy. However, after her mother died, Isabelle had to sell the house. Amy’s father, Jake Cunningham, was Isabelle’s father’s best friend. He seduced the teenage Isabelle when he came from California for her father’s funeral, then retreated to his wife and children.

Posing as a widow, Isabelle keeps the scandal in her past a secret from her acquaintances at the mill, the snobby deacons’ wives in her church, and Amy. Having risen to the position of secretary to her mill manager, she is isolated from her coworkers to some extent and nurtures a secret longing for Clark as a husband, though he is married.

At home little is said between her and Amy. The daughter thinks her mother cannot understand her, possibly because she can barely understand herself. Isabelle, who is distracted by her own needs and worried about Amy, thinks that communication with her daughter is more or less hopeless. The love between the two is strong, but unexpressed, like a secret with no one to tell it to.

While Isabelle keeps to herself, Amy talks to Burrows and her substitute math teacher, Thomas Robertson. Foreshadowing the honesty to come later in the novel, Burrows curses her parents and siblings and reveals to Amy that she is pregnant by her ex- boyfriend Paul Bellows, who is a former football star at the school and now works in a gas station. Robertson, meanwhile, plays on Amy’s adolescent misery, beginning with after-school discussions of the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay and William Butler Yeats. When he drives her home after school, they engage in sex that is barely short of intercourse in his car in the woods. At this point, the revelations foreshadowed by Burrows’s candor with Amy begin, for Clark sees what Amy and Robertson are doing and tells Isabelle.

Of course, Amy has kept her infatuation with Robertson a secret from Isabelle and even from Burrows, though she has hinted at it by making her mother feel stupid about poetry and accusing her of reading nothing but Reader’s Digest, thus deflating Isabelle’s pretense at being superior to her mill coworkers.

Isabelle’s role of mother-as-victim now changes to mother- as-fury. She forces Robertson to leave town and cuts off most of Amy’s luxurious hair. Like Amy, though, she says nothing about the scandal; however, Clark, in telling his wife Emma, lets it loose among the deacons’ wives.

Then, Dottie Brown, whom Amy has replaced in the mill office for the summer while Brown recovers from a hysterectomy, returns and says that she has seen a UFO. This announcement starts a fight between her and Lenora Snibbens, a coworker who seems to believe in nothing. Fat Bev, the Earth Mother...

(The entire section is 1611 words.)