Book Report: Amy and Isabelle

Amy and Isabelle Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Like The Burgess Boys, Amy and Isabelle is a powerful story about how a moment can spin lives into new paths. Reflecting back Isabelle ponders “She had never really imagined-that was the thing. But imagine it now, standing in your kitchen, wondering what to make for dinner that night, checking the refrigerator-and the telephone rings. One minute your world is one way, the next minute it’s all caved in.” (Loc 4889)

There are a few such moments in the novel. Toward the end viewing a friend’s moment of crisis “…she [Isabelle] could see. She could easily see that. God knew she could see how one’s entire life could be taken apart and that Dottie’s life was being taken apart right now, almost in front of Isabelle’s eyes.” (Loc 4061).

Unlike The Burgess Boys where we see the impact an accident affects the lives of siblings half a lifetime later. In Amy And Isabelle we see the primary moment of change, Amy’s seduction by her teacher, build slowly but inexorably through the first half of the book. Powerful and destructive changes occur immediately and affect the mother and daughter the rest of their lives. Isabelle’s struggle is to find some sense of grace and forgiveness both for her daughter and herself.

Then tension builds again for another set of changes one night that adjusts the course of lives once again. “But what could you do? Only keep going. People kept going; they had been doing it for thousands of years. You took the kindness offered, letting it seep as far in as it could go, and the remaining dark crevices you carried around with you, knowing that over time they might change into something almost bearable. Dottie, Bev, Isabelle, in their own ways knew this. But Amy was young. She didn’t know yet what se could or could not bear, and silently she clung like a dazed child to all three mothers in the room.” (Loc 4993)

Elizabeth Strout is a wonderful writer. She comfortably and completely inhabits her characters and their physical and emotional landscapes. She has a beautiful style of writing and weaves words together to build a work of art. I particularly like one aspect of her style where she doesn’t show us the internal view of one of the major characters – Mr Robertson the teacher in this case. We only see him through the eyes of Amy and Isabelle; so we never get a sense of his motivations and struggles.

Strout does a marvelous job examining one small moment are viewed so differently by the different people involved: “‘Are you hungry, Amy? Would you like something to eat?’ And Amy simply shook her head, not able to speak because of some swift, unarticulated compassion for her mother. But Isabelle in her memory, for the rest of her life, saw Amy’s indifferent shake of her head as proof that already the girl had been lost to her…” (Loc 5292).

Elizabeth Strout captures these universal moments we all experience and reflects them back to us clearly and powerfully; isn’t that the job of an artist?

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