Thursday, July 9, 2009

Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout - Book Review #12

Elizabeth Strout is the author of Olive Kitteridge, Pulitzer Prize winner for 2009. As I have waited to get my literature-gluttonous eyes on it, I've read Strout's Abide With Me and Amy and Isabelle. Both are excellent. I'm anxious to see what her Pulitzer writing looks like.

Amy, a teenage girl with a "lack of commotion in her face", is Isabelle's daughter. Isabelle is a single mother and a secretary who spends lots of time in "fruitless conjecture, hours of wasted thought". She is confident that she is giving Amy the opportunities in life that she missed. Isabelle loves her boss, Avery Clark. This is a secret she has shared with no one. Just as she has convinced herself that she is doing all she can for her daughter, she is equally convinced that Avery's wife does not love him as she would. Isabelle thinks, "Now, if she were married to Avery (rolling sheet of paper into the typewriter and getting rid of Emma Clark with a heart attack that would carry only a few brief moments of panic and pain), Avery might say in response to some one's asking, A nasty bug, but Isabelle took wonderful care of me." In short, Isabelle is desperate to love someone. Well. Amy would have been a good place to start. Amy, desperate to be loved, receives some attention from someone (who has no business giving her attention) and does every thing she possibly can to keep that attention coming. Strout writes, "Amy had become desperate, crazy, somebody else." The decisions that Amy and Isabelle make in response to their desperation for love direct the remainder of the story, which will make you think and laugh and cry just a little.

The characters on the periphery of the story will make you laugh. These characters (Dottie, Bev and Stacy) point out just how rotten life can be because of the way we treat one another. In one scene, Strout writes, "Intermittently glancing at Dottie lying on the couch with the afghan pulled over her, Isabelle had to keep looking away, for she was struck with the extreme ease with which lives could be damaged, destroyed. Lives, flimsy as fabric, could be snipped capriciously with the shears of random moments of self-interest." And then, there is this poignant paragraph: "She gazed at the stupefied Dottie in her rocking chair and had the sense to visibly witnessing a disaster, a house left in shambles, as though an earthquake had struck. But it wasn't any earthquake, it wasn't any "act of God." No, you couldn't blame these things on God. It was people, just ordinary, regular people, who did this to each other. People ruined other people's lives. People simply took what they wanted..." Did you pause when you read that? If not, go back and read it again. Self. It can be a dangerous thing. Is there any place in your life where your self interest is simply taking what you want? Yep. I thought so.

Predictably, there are some strong mother/daughter themes in the book. When Stacy, a teenager adopted at birth and Amy's best friend, gets pregnant and decides to keep the baby, she pontificates the following point: "I wonder if I'm like my real mother...Because if everyone just turns out like their mother, then what's the...point?" Here are some lines that have no doubt been screamed in kitchens by mothers to their teenage daughters many, many times: " 'You go right ahead and tell yourself that your mother is an illiterate moron and that she's too stupid to know anything about real life, but I'm telling you that you are the one who doesn't know anything!' It has become that senseless and awful, yelling at each other about who was the most stupid."

Amy and Isabelle provides a profound portrait of the female teenage mind. It is this aspect of the novel that I appreciated the most. Teenage girls are delightful and unique. However, they - generally speaking - have an extreme desire to feel loved by their mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, friends, boyfriends, teachers, aunts, uncles, and third cousins. Time and again I've seen them make unfortunate decisions to obtain this love. While Elizabeth Strout doesn't necessarily provide solutions for the teenager, she certainly reminds us that as the adults, we have a responsibility to give love and attention to these young ladies. Because if we don't, they are going to go elsewhere to find it. And the elsewhere might not be so lovely.


  1. If you liked this book I suggest reading The Lost Daughter by Daralyse Lyons.

  2. Great review. I'm linking up on my review of the book.