Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Amy and Isabelle: a novel by Elizabeth Strout

Discussion leader: Ellen Getreu
Monday, February 6, 1pm

A compelling first novel, Elizabeth Strout’s Amy and Isabelle tells the story of alienation from a distant mother and a parent’s rage at the discovery of her 16-year-old daughter’s sexual secrets. Gossip ridden Shirley Falls doesn’t help matters as Amy is discovered behind steamed up windows of a car with her math teacher. Amy discovers the fragility of happiness through the many other dramas that come to her little town. Witty and often profound, this first novel is a promise of more to come from a new, talented writer.

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/*Starred Review*/ In a New England mill town during the summer, probably, of 1969, a lot of things were going on while Amy and her mother, Isabelle, were circling around the harsh knot of their ties to each other and their terror of them. Isabelle's pinched existence as a single mother belies a spirit that only occasionally flares into desire or pleasure; Amy's shy, desperate adolescence finds furtive solace in the caresses of her math teacher. Each woman has a kind of alter ego; for Isabelle, it's Fat Bev, large and talky but kind, one of the women at the mill's office where Isabelle is a secretary. For Amy, it is Stacy, her foul-mouthed best friend, who is pregnant and angry. A cast of characters find and lose each other, cling to kindness and to the comfort of the daily routine, however uninspired. Strout traces all of this with a precise evocation of pure feeling or glowing truth: "memories danced inside her like a living thing." Sexuality smolders and explodes; women have female troubles; mysteries never get solved; but through it all, Strout's intense scrutiny of what makes us our mothers' daughters is both beautiful and unsettling. Marvelous writing makes the quietest gesture ring loudly: the crashing of a Belleek cream pitcher is the sound of hearts breaking and healing. ((Reviewed November 15, 1998)) -- GraceAnne A. DeCandido

Publishers Weekly:

Stories of young women who suffer the sexual advances of an authority figure (in this case, a high school math teacher) seem ubiquitous these days. But in Strout's gently powerful, richly satisfying debut, the damage shows less within the heart of the teenaged girl in question than in the wreckage of the previously tranquil relationship she had enjoyed with her mother. Amy Goodrow, 16, is the shy only child of Isabelle, a single mother. Isabelle's shame over the secret of her daughter's illegitimacy and her hunger for respectability keep her painfully isolated from the community of the New England mill town where she has made her home. Even before Amy's relations with her teacher become known, her beauty and her burgeoning sexuality arouse uncomfortable feelings of competitiveness in Isabelle, as well as dread at the prospect of her daughter's flight from Isabelle's carefully constructed nest. Amy, meanwhile, is in love; Strout lays out her teacher's charms as clearly as his caddishness, and her portrait of a young woman stumbling on the shattering power of lust--her own and others'--balances delicacy with frankness and breathtaking acuity. In the end, it is Isabelle who stays with the reader; devastated by her daughter's betrayal, riven with regrets over a life left largely unlived, she must somehow make amends to herself. This beautifully nuanced novel steers a course somewhere between the whimsy of Alice Hoffman and the compassionate insight of Anne Tyler and Sue Miller, and is sure to delight fans of all three. Agent, Lisa Bankoff at ICM. (Jan.)

Library Journal:


YA-Isabelle Goodrow thought her move to the small mill town of Shirley Falls would be temporary-just until she decided in which direction she wanted her life to head. Now her daughter, Amy, has fallen in love with her high school math teacher, and he takes advantage of the teen's infatuation. When the relationship is discovered, Isabelle is furious with her daughter but also a little jealous that Amy has found sexual fulfillment while she has not. As mother and daughter try to rebuild the trust and closeness they once shared, the private secrets of many citizens of Shirley Falls are revealed. YAs will relate to the complexities of mother/daughter relationships and to having a crush on a teacher. This is a beautifully written novel with characters so real that readers will miss them at the book's resolute ending. Their interactions are riveting.-Katherine Fitch, Rachel Carson Middle School, Herndon, VA Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.


/* Starred Review */ A lyrical, closely observant first novel, charting the complex, resilient relationship of a mother and daughter. Isabel Goodrow had settled in the mill town of Shirley Falls when her daughter Amy was an infant, reluctantly admitting to those who asked that both her husband and her parents were dead. Amy has grown up knowing little about her father and, thanks to her closeness to Isabel, also knowing little about the rough give-and-take of life. Now, Amy's innocence is under assault from various quarters, and her mother finds herself losing touch with the daughter who has been the focus of her existence. Amy, at 16, has a poised, delicate beauty, and finds herself—at first with alarm, then with a barely suppressed excitement—responding to the flirtations of a new teacher. Part of the novel's power derives from Strout's ability to set Amy and Isabel's painful struggles within the larger context of a small town. Some elements of the life there seem timeless: the steady flow of gossip, the invisible but nonetheless rigid social hierarchies, the ancient disruptions of life (illness, adultery, violence). New elements, however, signal a darker time: UFO's have been sighted, and a young girl is missing and may have been abducted. Strout nicely interweaves these elements within the record of Amy and Isabelle's increasingly charged relationship. She catches, with an admirable restraint, and particularity, Amy's emergent sense of self, the wild succession of emotions in adolescence, and Amy's stunning discovery of sex. She also renders a wonderfully nuanced portrait of Isabelle, a bright, often angry woman who has only imperfectly replaced passion with stoicism. Matters come to a head when Amy and her teacher are discovered in compromising circumstances, and when members of her father's family suddenly get in touch. In less sure hands, all of this would seem merely melodramatic. But Strout demonstrates exceptional poise, and an uncommon ability to render complex emotions with clarity and a sympathetic intelligence, evoking comparisons with the work of Alice Munro and Anne Tyler. (Author tour) (Kirkus Reviews, November 15, 1999)

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