April 13, 1999
by Kay Kimbrough
AMY AND ISABELLE
Random House, 1998, $22.95.
Isabelle, mother of Amy, is the secretary to the boss of a mill in a small mill town in New England. She is separated from the other office workers by glass, and she prefers to remain behind her glass shield at work just as she prefers to surround herself with an invisible shield of respectability and dignity in her private life. She feels superior to the other women at work because of her status as the boss's secretary and because the other women are descendants of French Canadians and Catholic while she is a member of the Congregational Church, the church of the professional class in Shirley Falls.
Amy, a gifted, pretty and shy high school student, is evidence of Isabelle's only lapse in respectability: Isabelle gave birth to Amy when she was seventeen and unmarried. She simply leaves her hometown, tells Amy that her father is dead, gets a job in the mill, and lives a limited and lonely life, until a crisis precipitated by Amy's relationship with an older teacher at the high school causes her invisible shield to shatter and exposes her to the reality of her own emotions and unfulfilled needs.
Strout's style and technique are naturalistic. She depicts the town as a dull and dreary place, the lives of the characters as respectably boring or chaotic and disappointing, depending on the social class. No one is idealized or glorified. Amy's introduction to sex by an older man and by one of her contemporaries is presented in the least appealing scenes possible, and the conflict between mother and daughter that results from Isabelle's awareness of Amy's budding sexuality is ugly and rough. Both mother and daughter are angry, silent and mutually hostile for a time.
The barrier between mother and daughter is finally broken by a series of events that wake Isabelle from her long emotional coma. One of the women who works in the office at the mill, Fat Bev, functions as the voice of common sense and charity, while another, Dottie, reminds Isablelle that her brief affair with an older married man must have hurt his wife as much as Dottie is hurt when her husband leaves her for another woman. "....Isabelle was suddenly thinking of something else, picturing something she had not pictured before(not really): a woman, a mother, standing in a kitchen in California on a hot summer day, planning her weekend, perhaps, baking a cake for her husband, living the normal life she had lived for years--- the telephone ringing---and then the roof of her life collapsed."
Isabelle remembers her own part in "a house left in shambles," as Dottie Brown's has been, but then comes to her senses: "But it wasn't any earthquake, it wasn't any act of 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, just as this Althea who worked at Acme Tire Company wanted Wally Brown and got him."
Strout shows that "just ordinary people" living in the dullest of environments have interesting and complex inner lives and that the harm they do each other can be overcome with love and understanding. Along the way, Fat Bev, mother earth and fountain of wisdom, thinks her wise thoughts and speaks only when necessary. While Isabelle and Dottie try to sort out the mystery of Wally's desertion, admitting that they don't understand it and "don't know anything," "Then you're both stupid, Bev wanted to say. Because there's no mystery to this. Some men, and some women (picturing the tall, sallow-faced Althea), are simply pieces of -- Bev didn't say this; she finished her beer and lit a cigarette."
Isabelle and Amy are reconciled at last, and all the loose strings of the lives of the various characters are tied. The plot is mechanical, the realism painful, the ending conveniently happy but the inner lives of these women and this girl are depicted with delicacy and sympathy that leave bright spaces in a dark world.