January 1999

Secrets between mother and daughter

By Elizabeth Strout
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The delicate relationship between mothers and daughters full of love and anger, often simultaneously, is the subject of Elizabeth Strout's stunning first novel, Amy and Isabelle. When Amy, a shy 16-year-old, has an affair with her high-school math teacher, she threatens the strong relationship with her mother Isabelle, forcing them to question the boundaries of their love.

That summer in Shirley Falls, a small New England town, seems relentless filled with the heat, the noxious sulfur odor of the river, and the strained vow of silence between Amy and Isabelle. The novel opens with Amy beginning her summer job at her mother's work place, the mill. Told in a series of flashbacks, the trouble begins when a young, enthusiastic Mr. Robertson replaces Amy's teacher. Sharing after school talks about poetry and life, Mr. Robertson offers Amy a ride home so she can avoid having to trudge through the muddy slush—a ride leading to many others.

Throughout the spring, Isabelle notices a pleasant change in her daughter and hopes the girl is coming out of her shell. But Isabelle has no idea Amy is seeing her teacher until they are discovered.

Amy's deceit makes Isabelle, a single mother, question her own parenting skills, remembering her own lies that began when she first moved to Shirley Falls when Amy was a baby. Horrified by her daughter's actions, Isabelle commits an act that they later regret, igniting the hostile silence throughout the summer. Unsure how to make amends, Amy and Isabelle begin the arduous process of learning to see each other as adults and recognizing their respective limits.

The details, whether describing the snake shape of the river or the way Amy ducks behind her long hair, ensure that this book will long stay in the reader's mind. The friendship and sometimes hostility between the women of Shirley Falls is often what enables them to persevere. In a few chapters, the time shifts are confusing, but for the most part, this novel is seamless, moving through the cold winter into the drought-ridden summer with ease.

In this quiet but exhilarating novel, the reader becomes involved in the life of Shirley Falls, able to peer through everyone's roofs at night and empathize with their struggles.

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Amy and Isabelle

Amy and Isabelle

By Elizabeth Strout
Random House
ISBN 9780375501340

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