Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1611
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 in the office, and Isabelle, who is in charge of the office while Clark is on vacation, comfort her and try to get her to eat after her husband’s rejection has made her miserable and too thin.
Shortly afterward, Fat Bev and Brown arrive at Isabelle’s house, where Brown says that her husband Wally has left her for a younger woman, Althea Gibson, with whom he was having an affair. Then Isabelle reveals, as she tells Amy later, her true past. In this way, she shakes off the isolation she has imposed on herself since arriving in town and finally befriends other women.
The point the novel is making is that life cannot be endured in a vacuum, though keeping some secrets is necessary just the same. For example, Isabelle tells no one about her longing for her boss, though she puts this aside when Clark and his wife forget to come to her house for dessert one night. Also, Amy tells neither Isabelle nor Burrows that she has started seeing Burrows’s ex-boyfriend Bellows.
Indeed, Amy is free to grow up and Isabelle is free to help her do so. She guides Amy in the use of makeup and oversees the restoration of her hair. At the same time, Isabelle writes to Cunningham’s widow Evelyn in California to apologize for her adultery and brings Amy to visit Amy’s half-sister Catherine in Massachusetts at Evelyn’s invitation.
If desire and disappointment cause the secrets in Amy and Isabelle, the need to get on with their lives causes the characters to stop pretending. For example, Fat Bev, whose looks are gone and whose daughters are grown, overeats with moderate abandon. She may hide her fear of death the way Isabelle hides her past, but her willingness to accept herself brings her pleasure. Likewise, Isabelle’s eventual reaching out to her daughter and other women brings her relief.
In the end, the novel’s characters get what they deserve. Isabelle marries the kindly pharmacist who filled out the prescription for Amy’s Valium, and Amy blossoms into her attraction to men and her friendship with Burrows, who becomes kinder once she gives birth. Peg Dunlap, one of the deacons’ wives at Isabelle’s church, finds no solace but greater stress in her affair with Burrows’s father, and her friend, the pretty snob Barbara Rawley, loses a breast to cancer and is arrested for shoplifting. Clark, who wants nothing to do with other people’s troubles even when he causes them, as when he tells on Amy and attracts Isabelle, dies of a heart attack, which seems fitting.
Clark is a good example of the way in which the author negatively characterizes most of the male characters. Strout portrays Clark as emotionally closed and Jake Cunningham as insensitive to the effect his dalliance with Isabelle would have on her and his wife. Strout presents similarly negative portrayals of Gerald Burrows, who as a psychologist is supposed to help cure people and not make things worse for them, and Robertson, who thinks only his desire for Amy counts and not hers for him. Puddy Mandel, the principal at Amy’s high school, is seen as letting his mother come between him and his lover Linda Lanier, the school’s Spanish teacher, as though he were still a child. Bellows is portrayed as ignorant, not because he cannot flatter Amy like Robertson, but because he cannot see how repulsive sex with him could be to her.
Strout uses the seasons and other images to reflect the characters’ inner states. When Isabelle feels lonely, it is winter; when Amy is excited by Robertson, it is spring; when she and Isabelle are stuck in despair, it is summer; and when they solve their problems, it is fall.
Debby Kay Dorne, a long-missing twelve-year-old, whose corpse Bellows and Amy find in a junk car in the woods, is an image of lust gone mad. Robertson’s old car is an image symbolic of his age, as Bellows’s new sports car is an image of his. The woods where Amy discovers sex with Robertson and begins her intimacy with Bellows is an image for the ways of nature, namely sex. When Isabelle’s treasured creamer, which belonged to her mother, breaks, it becomes an image for the weakness of the past. Isabelle’s house itself is an image of her life. The house is first tidy, which symbolizes Isabelle’s attempts to hide her feelings, and then messy, which symbolizes her feelings and their release brought about by her daughter. Amy’s hair is an image for her excess when it is long, her despair when it is cut short, and her maturity when it is styled.
Amy and Isabelle is finally about order, in that everything in it, even the surprises, is normal. Ordinariness itself is a kind of fence keeping the people inside from going too far in hurting each other in the name of self-interest and from making their concern for each other heroic.
It is not hard to figure out what is going to happen in such a story, such as Amy and Robertson’s liaison when they first react to each other and the failure of Isabelle’s love for Clark when he is first introduced. However, Strout’s polite style and convincing display of the relationships between mother and daughter and their peers make up for the plot’s predictable nature.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 95 (November 15, 1998): 567.
Newsweek 133 (January 11, 1999): 66.
Publishers Weekly 245 (October 19, 1998): 52.
Time 153 (January 11, 1999): 101.
Women’s Review of Books 16 (June, 1999): 11.
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