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Sometimes just one sequel isn’t enough

Earlier this year I wrote about the inherent — small, but not insignificant — letdown that comes when a sequel arrives for a beloved book, how the update has a difficult time living up to whatever futures we had imagined for the characters after the original.

My central example was Tom Perrotta’s sequel to “Election,” “Tracy Flick Can’t Win.” One of the other examples of the phenomenon cited was “Olive, Again” Elizabeth Strout’s follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Olive Kitteridge.”

Thanks to Strout, however, I am amending my opinion.

I’ve now decided that my sequel theory was incomplete. It isn’t that it’s necessarily a mistake to write a follow-up to a previously highly regarded novel, so much as it may be better to write three subsequent stories, as Strout has done with her character Lucy Barton, in a series that began with 2016′s “My Name Is Lucy Barton” and now includes the latest, “Lucy by the Sea.”

If you turn on the Disney Channel you will see the seemingly bottomless array of Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) content. Well, I’m here to testify that Elizabeth Strout is on to something with her Lucy Barton Fictional Universe (the LBFU). Seeing it in print, it’s possible that acronym won’t catch on, but having devoured “Lucy by the Sea” in a day, I started to think that I may just need to check in on Lucy every year, because how else will I know what my good friend is up to?

As a reader, it is not unusual for me to develop a sense of intimacy with a book or fictional character. This is, after all, one of the reasons I enjoy reading so much, but it is interesting to consider how Strout has created and then expanded the storytelling world of her character, Lucy Barton, and what it’s like to read a series of books with her at the center.

"Lucy by the Sea" by Elizabeth Strout (published Sept. 20, 2022).

The original installment, “My Name Is Lucy Barton” introduces us to Lucy, a successful writer who has escaped a childhood of deprivation in rural Illinois for a life as a successful writer in New York City. Lucy must spend a few days in a hospital, alone, and her estranged mother comes to see her. There’s very little action, but I got in trouble reading it during jury duty I was so engrossed.

“Anything is Possible” expands the universe through a series of short stories about the people of Amgash, Illinois, Lucy’s hometown. “Oh, William!” is set in the aftermath of her ex-husband being left by his third wife (Lucy being his first) and finding out he has a sister he never knew, and Lucy being yoked into the adventure. “Lucy by the Sea” has William and Lucy ensconced in remote Maine, riding out the first year of the pandemic.

The way Strout creates such intimacy with Lucy is an amazing feat of technical skill that is so subtle, it’s easy to overlook. Rather than reading like a “novel,” the stories unfold almost like we are privy directly to Lucy’s thoughts, or that we are reading a quasi-diary, the material a novelist records to later transmogrify into fiction. It is a story that doesn’t feel like a story.

Lucy is experiencing things — like being holed up with her ex-husband during a pandemic — and is trying (and sometimes failing) to figure them out. The Lucy we meet in “My Name Is Lucy Barton” is still trying to understand her now long deceased mother in “Lucy by the Sea.” There are no pat conclusions here, only life and its extraordinarily ordinary struggles.

Catching up with Lucy really is like catching up with that friend you haven’t talked to in a while, but often think about. I hope there are many more installments on the way.

John Warner is the author of “Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities.”

Twitter @biblioracle

Book recommendations from the Biblioracle

John Warner tells you what to read based on the last five books you’ve read

1. “Pew” by Catherine Lacey

2. “The Turn of the Screw and Other Stories” by Henry James

3. “The Office of Historical Corrections” by Danielle Evans

4. “Victoria: The Queen” by Julia Baird

5. “Bad Blood” by Arne Dahl

Christine C., Skokie

Christine is not bothered by a story with considerable psychological intensity. “Telephone” by Percival Everett feels like a good bet.

1. “Only Time Will Tell” by Jeffrey Archer

2. “The Ruin” by Dervla McTiernan

3. “Nine Lives” by Peter Swanson

4. “Rock Paper Scissors” by Alice Feeney

5. “Al Capone Does My Shirts” by Gennifer Choldenko

— Nancy U., Wheaton

Nancy definitely seems to enjoy a good, suspenseful story that keeps you guessing. Ruth Ware excels at this in “The Woman in Cabin 10.”

1. “The Guest List” by Lucy Foley

2. “Horse” by Geraldine Brooks

3. “The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo” by Taylor Jenkins Reid

4. “Harlem Shuffle” by Colson Whitehead

5. “The Dutch House” by Ann Patchett

— Lisa T., Chicago

“Skippy Dies” by Paul Murray is a coming-of-age mystery/comedy/tragedy, that stuffs any emotion you can imagine into a long and involving reading experience and it’s a good match for Lisa (or just about anyone, really).

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