Sunday, February 7, 2010

Amy and Isabelle

Having a novel titled with characters names clearly tells that the novel will be character driven, and character drives Elizabeth Strout's 1998 novel, Amy and Isabelle.

Amy Goodrow is a withdrawn high school student in a small mill town in Massachusetts who falls into a sexual relationship with a substitute math teacher.

Her best friend Stacy, daughter of a wealthy psychologist, has her own secrets including that she's pregnant by a washed up former high school football star. Every school day during lunch, the two sneak outside of school to smoke cigarettes and bemoan their boring lives and their unknowing and "out of it" parents who blindly live their lives not clued in to their children's activities.

Isabelle Goodrow, Amy's single mother, and secretary to a mill boss, secretly fantasies about how much better of a wife she would be to her boss, and deliberately rents a house on the outskirts of town because she didn't like the way the neighborhoods in town she could afford "looked."

She feels like had she had the opportunity she would have "made something of herself" -- and this attitude she carries around the other women who work with her, thus isolating her from friendships.

When Amy's affair with the math teacher is discovered by Isabelle's boss and brought to Isabelle's attention, the spiraling after effects include a furious backlash and then a paralyzing silence between them.

Isabelle thinks, " [this] 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 each others' lives. People simply took what they wanted."

Before the secret affair had been revealed, Amy had accepted a summer job where Isabelle works. With the "paralyzing silence" between Amy and Isabelle, the long days together throw mother and daughter under the scrutiny of Isabelle's boss and her co-workers, who note the pale faced Amy and the "waiting to crack" Isabelle. The tension filled time causes other cataclysmic events that send Isabelle to deal with her own past and secrets; however, before they can be dealt with -- Amy stumbles on a horrific scene -- a scene which brings mother and daughter full circle.

Since I am not a fan of fiction where teachers have affairs with students, I was glad Strout makes sure that it's not the focus of the novel -- instead the conflict is between mother and daughter, both lonely and desiring someone to love them -- someone other than each other. Isabelle notes, "All the love in the world couldn't' prevent the awful truth: you passed on who you were."

BTW: I don't necessarily recommend this novel -- as the teacher and student relationship was disturbing ... but I do think that Strout is a good writer.

When I went to google the cover to post, Argh! I see that this novel was a 2001 movie starring Elizabeth Shue and that some of the cast had been brought on Oprah's show.



  1. I'm am in agreement I don't want to read about a student/teacher affair it's all kind of wrong, but your synopsis of the story definitely makes it sound interesting enough to put on my list :)

  2. Thanks for the book review. They are my favorite. Could you provide a spoiler section for those of us who won't read the book but really want to know the secrets?