Amy and Isabelle

( 72 )

Overview

Amy and Isabelle explores the secrets of sexuality that jeopardize the love between a mother and her daughter. Amy Goodrow, a shy high school student in a small mill town, falls in love with her math teacher, and together they cross the line between understandable fantasy and disturbing reality. When discovered, this emotional and physical trespass brings disgrace to Amy's mother, Isabelle, and intensifies the shame she feels about her own past. In a fury, she lashes out at her daughter's beauty and then retreats...
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Amy and Isabelle

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Overview

Amy and Isabelle explores the secrets of sexuality that jeopardize the love between a mother and her daughter. Amy Goodrow, a shy high school student in a small mill town, falls in love with her math teacher, and together they cross the line between understandable fantasy and disturbing reality. When discovered, this emotional and physical trespass brings disgrace to Amy's mother, Isabelle, and intensifies the shame she feels about her own past. In a fury, she lashes out at her daughter's beauty and then retreats into outraged silence. Amy withdraws, too, and mother and daughter eat, sleep, and even work side by side but remain at a vast, seemingly unbridgeable distance from each other. This conflict is surrounded by other large and small dramas in the town of Shirley Falls -- a teenage pregnancy, a UFO sighting, a missing child, and the trials of Fat Bev, the community's enormous and enormously funny and compassionate peacemaker and amateur medical consultant.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Elizabeth Strout's remarkably assured debut novel, Amy and Isabelle, is an exquisitely nuanced exploration of the complex relationship between a single mother and her teenage daughter. Shy, sensitive Amy Goodrow leads a cloistered existence with her mother, Isabelle, in a small New England mill town. For years, Isabelle has stoically endured the emotional emptiness of her life and unfulfilling secretarial job, secure in the knowledge that "her real life would happen somewhere else." But when Amy falls in love with her high school math teacher and crosses the line between adolescent fantasy and disturbing reality, she releases Isabelle's intense shame about her own past and opens an unbridgeable distance between them.
Mademoiselle
If you read one book all year, let it be this exquisite first novel.
Vanessa V. Friedman
...[I]n Strout's sure hands[the central revelatory] truth isn't awful butin factrevelatory. —Entertainment Weekly
Time Magazine
Strout's insights into the complex psychology between [mother and daughter] result in a poignant tale about two comings of age.
Jeff Giles
Lovely, powerful. —Newsweek
Laura Jamison
...[A]n impresive debut novel....Strout writes with abundant warmth...
People Magazine
New Yorker
Unflaggingly engaging...What a pleasure to gain entry into the world of this book.
From The Critics
...[A] poignant, compassionate and insightful tale...
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's 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.
KLIATT
It's an oppressively hot summer in the small New England town of Shirley Falls, and prim Isabelle and her self-conscious sixteen-year-old daughter Amy both feel trapped, by the heat and by their relationship. Not only do they live together but they are also working together in the office of a mill, although they can hardly stand the sight of each other. Amy had fallen in love with her math teacher, and when Isabelle's boss discovers them in the throes of passion in a car, Isabelle learns of their relationship and the teacher leaves town. Neither Amy nor Isabelle can forgive the other, until Isabelle finally breaks out of her shell, befriends her office mates, and reveals her own shameful secrets from her past. This exquisitely written first novel is a close and loving examination of the relationship between a mother and a daughter as they both come of age. The characters are wonderful, from Isabelle's kind coworker Fat Bev (she issues advice like "marry a man whose mother is dead") to Amy's foul-mouthed pregnant friend Stacy. For mature teens who can appreciate both Amy's and Isabelle's perspectives. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 1998, Vintage/Random House, 306p, 21cm, 98-19995, $13.00. Ages 16 to adult. Reviewer: Paula Rohrlick; May 2000 (Vol. 34 No. 3)
Library Journal
When Amy Goodrow falls in love with her high school math teacher, and the two are subsequently found parked on a lonely road together, her relationship with her mother, Isabelle, is changed forever. This mother-daughter novel tells the story of how Isabelle Goodrow escaped her past and moved to a small town with her daughter, telling everyone her husband and family were dead. While focusing on the relationship between the women, Strout also explores the lives of others in Shirley Falls: Dottie Brown and Fat Bev, Isabelle's co-workers at the mill; Stacy Burros, Amy's best friend; and women from Isabelle's church. Strout's first novel reveals her ability to create characters who are both interesting and believable. Her attention to the detail of everyday life resembles that of Alice Munro and Anne Tyler. Stephanie Roberts reads with clarity, capturing the personality of each character; the tape quality is excellent. Recommended for popular fiction collections.--Nancy Ives, SUNY at Geneseo Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
The New Yorker
Unflaggingly engaging...What a pleasure to gain entry into the world of this book.
San Francisco Chronicle
This first-time novelist is destined for great things....Stunning.
Laura Jamison
...[A]n impresive debut novel....Strout writes with abundant warmth... -- People Magazine
Vanessa V. Friedman
...[I]n Strout's sure hands, [the central revelatory] truth isn't awful but, in fact, revelatory. -- Entertainment Weekly
Jeff Giles
Lovely, powerful. -- Newsweek
Suzanne Berne
Evocative...one of those rare, invigorating books that take an apparently familiar world and peer into it with ruthless intimacy, revealing a strange and startling place. -- The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
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: UFOs 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 headwhen 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.
From the Publisher
"One of those rare, invigorating books that take an apparently familiar world and peer into it with ruthless intimacy, revealing a strange and startling place." -- The New York Times Book Review

"Strout's insights into the complex psychology bewteen [mother and daughter] result in a poignant tale about two coming of age." --Time

"Impressive....Strout writes with abundant warmth." --People

"Poignant...sensitively imagined...[Amy and Isabelle] recalls the elgegiac charm of Our Town." --The Christian Science Monitor

"Stunning....Every once in a while, a novel comes along that plunges deep into your psyche, leaving you breathless....This year that novel is Amy and Isabelle." --San Francisco Chronicle

"A novel of shining integrity and humor, about the bravery and hard choices of what is called ordinary life." --Alice Munro

"Excellent....Strout's collective portrait...remains unflaggingly engaging....[W]hat a pleasure to gain entry into the world of this book." --The New Yorker

"Lovely, powerful...a kind if modern 'Rapunzel.'" --Newsweek

"Amy and Isabelle is an impressive debut....with an expansiveness and inventiveness that is the mark of a true storyteller." --The Philadelphia Inquirer

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780792799078
  • Publisher: AudioGO
  • Publication date: 6/1/2001
  • Edition description: Unabridged
  • Pages: 12

Meet the Author

Elizabeth  Strout
Elizabeth Strout lives in New York City.

Biography

With the kind of reception that Elizabeth Strout's debut novel Amy and Isabelle received, one might have expected her to rush right back to her writing desk to author a follow-up while the proverbial iron was still hot. However, that is not the way that Strout works. "I wish tremendously that I was faster about all this," she recently told Bookpage.com. "But, you know, it didn't turn out to be that way." It ultimately took her about seven years to write Abide with Me, her sophomore effort, and the amount of time she put into crafting the novel is apparent on every page.

The multitudinous hours that went into writing Abide with Me are not anything new to Elizabeth Strout. She took any equally measured number of years to writer her debut, which she developed out of a short story. "It took me around three years to ‘clear my throat' for this book," she told Bookreporter.com at the time of the release of Amy and Isabelle. "During much of that time Amy and Isabelle remained a story. Once I got down to actually writing it as a novel it took another six or seven years." However, the pay off for the time she spent writing this humorous, expertly rendered tale of the troubled relationship between a mother and her daughter was substantial. Amy and Isabelle received nearly unanimous praise, lauded by Mademoiselle, The New Yorker, Newsweek, Time Magazine, People Magazine, and Publishers Weekly, to name just a few. The novel also nabbed nominations for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the Orange Prize for Fiction, and was the subject of a 2001 made-for-television movie starring Elizabeth Shue.

So, what kept Strout from completing her second novel sooner? Perhaps it was her unorthodox writing methods. "I try to get in three or four hours (of writing per day)," she explains, "and I put off having lunch for as long as I can because having lunch seems to change the energy flow. If I'm lucky, I'll get through till one o'clock. And then I throw everything out. And that's a morning's work."

While Strout may be indulging in a little good-natured, comical leg-pulling, she did not write Abide with Me to elicit giggles from her readers. This somber piece introduces Tyler Caskey, a minister in a small New England community whose mounting personal doubts following a tragedy cause the community that he serves to develop their own doubts about his ability to guide them spiritually.

While Abide with Me stands in contrast to the comparatively humorous Amy and Isabelle, it was not Strout's intention to render a serious exploration of theology or religion. She views the book as more of a character study. "It is the story of a minister," she explains. "I was interested in writing about a religious man who is genuine in his religiosity and who gets confronted with such sadness so abruptly that he loses himself. Not his faith, but his faith in himself."

With the admiration already pouring in for Abide with Me, Strout may very well have another bestseller on her hands. Publishers Weekly has called this striking novel "a harrowing meditation of exile on Main Street," while Booklist suggested that "Readers who enjoyed...Amy and Isabelle... will find much to move them in this tale of a man trying to get past his grief amid a town full of colorful people with their own secrets and heartaches."

Such praise may be of little interest to Strout, who once told Bookreporter.com, "When I finish a piece, I put it behind me and look to my future work." But considering her leisurely work methods, it may be several years before her readers get their hands on her any of her future work -- not that Strout needs to worry about whether or not her fans will forget her. As long as she continues producing work as rich and compelling as Amy and Isabelle and Abide with Me, she can take all the time she needs.

Update:
In 2009 Strout was honored with a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Olive Kitteridge, a collection of connected short stories about a woman and her immediate family and friends on the coast of Maine.

Good To Know

Some fun and fascinating outtakes from our interview with Strout:

"My first job was when I was about 12, cleaning houses in the afternoons for different elderly women in town. I hated it. I would be so bored scrubbing at some kitchen tile, that my mind would finally float all over the place, to the beach, to a friend's house...all this happened in my mind as I scrubbed those tiles, so it was certainly good for my imagination. But I did hate it."

"Without a doubt my mother was an inspiration for my writing. This is true in many ways, but mostly because she is a wonderful storyteller, without even knowing it. I would listen, as a child, when some friend of hers came to visit, and they would gossip about the different people they knew. My mother had the most fascinating stories about people's families, murderers, mental illnesses, babies abandoned, and she delivered it all in a matter-of-fact way that was terribly compelling. It made me believe that there was nothing more interesting than the lives of people, their real hidden lives, and this of course can lead one down the path of becoming a fiction writer."

"Later, in college, one of my favorite things was to go into town and sit at the counter at Woolworth's (so tragic to have them gone!) and listen to people talking; the waitresses and the customers -- I loved it. I still love to eavesdrop, but mostly I like the idea of being around people who are right in the middle of their lives, revealing certain details to each other -- leaving the rest for me to make up."

"I love theater. I love sitting in an audience and having the actors right there, playing out what it means to be a human being. There is something about the actual relationship that is going on between the audience and the actors that I just love. I love seeing the sets and costumes, the decisions that have been made about the staging...it's a place for the eye and the ear to be fully involved. I have always loved theater."

"I also like cell phones. What I mean by that is I hear many people complain about cell phones; they can't go anywhere without hearing someone on a cell phone, etc. But I love that chance to hear half a conversation, even if the person is just saying, ‘Hi honey, I'll be home in ten minutes, do you want me to bring some milk?' And I'm also grateful to have a cell phone, just to know it's there if I need it when I'm out and about. So I'm a cell phone fan."

"I don't especially like to travel, not the way many people do. I know many people that love to go to far-off and different places, and I've never been like that. I seem to get homesick as quickly as a child. I may like being in some new place for a few days, but then I want to go home and return to my routine and my familiar corner stores. I am a real creature of habit, without a doubt."

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    1. Hometown:
      Brooklyn, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      January 6, 1956
    2. Place of Birth:
      Portland, Maine
    1. Education:
      B.A., Bates College, 1977; J.D., Syracuse College of Law, 1982
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

    It was terribly hot that summer Mr. Robertson left town, and for a long while the river seemed dead. Just a dead brown snake of a thing lying flat through the center of town, dirty yellow foam collecting at its edge. Strangers driving by on the turnpike rolled up their windows at the gagging, sulfurous smell and wondered how anyone could live with that kind of stench coming from the river and the mill. But the people who lived in Shirley Falls were used to it, and even in the awful heat it was only noticeable when you first woke up; no, they didn't particularly mind the smell.

    What people minded that summer was how the sky was never blue, how it seemed instead that a dirty gauze bandage had been wrapped over the town, squeezing out whatever bright sunlight might have filtered down, blocking out whatever it was that gave things their color, and leaving a vague flat quality to hang in the air--this is what got to people that summer, made them uneasy after a while. And there were other things too: Further up the river crops weren't right--pole beans were small, shriveled on the vine, carrots stopped growing when they were no bigger than the fingers of a child; and two UFOs had apparently been sighted in the north of the state. Rumor had it the government had even sent people to investigate.

    In the office room of the mill, where a handful of women spent their days separating invoices, filing copies, pressing stamps onto envelopes with a thump of the fist, there was uneasy talk for a while. Some thought the world might be coming to an end, and even those women not inclined to go that far had to admit it might not have been a good idea sending men into space, that we had no business, really, walking around up there on the moon. But the heat was relentless and the fans rattling in the windows seemed to be doing nothing at all, and eventually the women ran out of steam, sitting at their big wooden desks with their legs slightly apart, lifting the hair from the back of their necks. "Can you believe this" was, after a while, about all that got said.

    One day the boss, Avery Clark, had sent them home early, but hotter days followed with no further mention of any early dismissal, so apparently this wasn't to happen again. Apparently they were supposed to sit there and suffer, and they did--the room held on to the heat. It was a big room, with a high ceiling and a wooden floor that creaked. The desks were set in pairs facing each other, two by two, down the length of the room. Metal filing cabinets lined the walls; on top of one sat a philodendron plant, its vines gathered and coiled like a child's clay pot, although some vines escaped and fell almost to the floor. It was the only green thing in the room. A few begonia plants and a wandering Jew left over by the windows had all turned brown. Occasionally the hot air stirred by a fan swept a dead leaf to the floor.

    In this scene of lassitude was a woman who stood apart from the rest. To be more accurate, she sat apart from the rest. Her name was Isabelle Goodrow, and because she was the secretary to Avery Clark, her desk did not face anyone. It faced instead the glassed-in office of Avery Clark himself, his office being an oddly constructed arrangement of wood paneling and large panes of glass (ostensibly to allow him to keep an eye on his workers, though he seldom looked up from his desk), and it was commonly referred to as "the fishbowl." Being the boss's secretary gave Isabelle Goodrow a status different from the other women in the room, but she was different anyway. For example, she was impeccably dressed; even in this heat she wore pantyhose. At a glance she might seem pretty, but if you looked closer you saw that in fact it didn't really get that far, her looks stopped off at plain. Her hair was certainly plain--thin and dark brown, pulled back in a bun or a twist. This hairstyle made her look older than she was, as well as a little school-marmish, and her dark, small eyes held an expression of constant surprise.

    While the other women tended to sigh a great deal, or make trips back and forth to the soda machine, complaining of backaches and swollen feet, warning each other against slipping off shoes because you'd never in a hundred years get them back on, Isabelle Goodrow kept fairly still. Isabelle Goodrow simply sat at her desk with her knees together, her shoulders back, and typed away at a steady pace. Her neck was a little peculiar. For a short woman it seemed excessively long, and it rose up from her collar like the neck of the swan seen that summer on the dead-looking river, floating perfectly still by the foamy-edged banks.

    Or, at any rate, Isabelle's neck appeared this way to her daughter, Amy, a girl of sixteen that summer, who had taken a recent dislike to the sight of her mother's neck (to the sight of her mother, period), and who anyway had never cared one bit for the swan. In a number of ways Amy did not resemble her mother. If her mother's hair was dull and thin, Amy's hair was a thick, streaky blond. Even cut short the way it was now, haphazardly below her ears, it was noticeably healthy and strong. And Amy was tall. Her hands were large, her feet were long. But her eyes, bigger than her mother's, often held the same expression of tentative surprise, and this startled look could produce some uneasiness in the person on whom her eyes were fixed. Although Amy was shy, and seldom fixed her eyes on anyone for long. She was more apt to glance at people quickly before turning her head. In any event, she didn't know really what kind of impression, if any, she made, even though she had privately in the past studied herself a great deal in any available mirror.

    But that summer Amy wasn't looking into any mirrors. She was avoiding them, in fact. She would have liked to avoid her mother as well, but that was impossible--they were working in the office room together. This summer arrangement had been arrived at months before, by her mother and Avery Clark, and while Amy was told to be grateful for the job, she was not. The job was very dull. She was required to add on an adding machine the last column of numbers of each orange invoice that lay on a stack on her desk, and the only good thing was that sometimes it seemed like her mind went to sleep.

    The real problem, of course, was that she and her mother were together all day. To Amy it seemed as though a black line connected them, nothing bigger than something drawn with a pencil, perhaps, but a line that was always there. Even if one of them left the room, went to the ladies' room or to the water fountain out in the hall, let's say, it didn't matter to the black line; it simply cut through the wall and connected them still. They did the best they could. At least their desks were far apart and didn't face each other.

    Amy sat in a far corner at a desk that faced Fat Bev. This was where Dottie Brown usually sat, but Dottie Brown was home getting over a hysterectomy that summer. Every morning Amy watched as Fat Bev measured out psyllium fiber and shook it vigorously into a pint-sized carton of orange juice. "Lucky you," Fat Bev said. "Young and healthy and all the rest. I bet you never even think about your bowels." Amy, embarrassed, would turn her head.

    Fat Bev always lit a cigarette as soon as her orange juice was done. Years later a law would be passed preventing her from doing this in the workplace--at which point she would gain another ten pounds and retire--but right now she was still free to suck in hard and exhale slowly, until she stubbed the cigarette out in the glass ashtray and said to Amy, "That did the trick, got the engine started." She gave Amy a wink as she heaved herself up and hauled her large self off to the bathroom.

    It was interesting, really. Amy had not known that cigarettes could make you go to the bathroom. This was not the case when she and Stacy Burrows smoked them in the woods behind the school. And she didn't know that a grown-up woman would talk about her bowels so comfortably. This, in particular, made Amy realize how differently from other people she and her mother lived.

    Fat Bev came back from the bathroom, sighing as she sat down, plucking pieces of tiny lint from the front of her huge sleeveless blouse. "So," she said, reaching for the telephone, a half-moon of dampness showing on the pale blue cloth beneath her armpit, "guess I'll give old Dottie a call." Fat Bev called Dottie Brown every morning. She dialed the telephone now with the end of a pencil and cradled the receiver between her shoulder and neck.

    "Still bleeding?" she asked, tapping her pink nails against the desk, pink disks almost embedded in flesh. They were Watermelon Pink--she had shown Amy the bottle of polish. "Setting a record or something? Never mind, don't hurry back. No one misses you a bit." Fat Bev picked up an Avon magazine and fanned herself, her chair creaking as she leaned back. "I mean that, Dot. Much nicer to look at Amy Goodrow's sweet face than hear you go on about your cramps." She gave Amy a wink.

    Amy looked away, pushing a number on the adding machine. It was a nice thing for Fat Bev to say, but of course it wasn't true. Fat Bev missed Dottie a lot. And why wouldn't she? They had been friends forever, sitting in this room for longer than Amy had been alive, although it boggled Amy's mind to think that. Besides, another thing to consider was how much Fat Bev loved to talk. She said so herself. "I can't shut up for five minutes," she said, and Amy, keeping an eye on the clock one day, had found this to be true. "I need to talk," Fat Bev explained. "It's a kind of physical thing." It seemed she had a point. It seemed her need to talk was as persistent as her need to consume Life Savers and cigarettes, and Amy, who loved Fat Bev, was sorry her own reticence must provide a disappointment. Without forming the thought completely, she blamed her mother for this. Her mother was not a particularly talkative person, either. Look how she just sat there all day typing, never stopping by anyone's desk to ask how they were doing, to complain about the heat. She must know she was considered a snob. Being her daughter, Amy would have to be considered one too.

    But Fat Bev didn't seem the least bit disappointed about sharing her corner with Amy. She hung up the telephone and leaned forward, telling Amy in a soft, confiding voice that Dottie Brown's mother-in-law was the most selfish woman in town. Dottie had a hankering for potato salad, which of course was a very good sign, and when she mentioned this to her mother-in-law, who everyone knew happened to make the best potato salad around, Bea Brown suggested that Dottie get up out of bed and go peel some potatoes herself.

    "That's awful," Amy offered sincerely.

    "I guess it is." Fat Bev sat back and yawned, patting her fleshy throat while her eyes watered. "Honey," she said, nodding, "you marry a man whose mother is dead."


    The lunchroom in the factory was a messy, worn-out-looking place. Vending machines lined one wall, a cracked mirror ran the length of another; tables with linoleum chipping from their tops were haphazardly pushed together or apart as the women arranged themselves, spreading out their lunch bags, their soda cans and ashtrays, unwrapping sandwiches from wax paper. Amy positioned herself, as she did every day, away from the cracked mirror.

    Isabelle sat at the same table, shaking her head as the story was told of Bea Brown's egregious remark to Dottie. Arlene Tucker said it was probably due to hormones, that if you looked carefully at Bea Brown's chin you'd see she had whiskers, and it was Arlene's belief that women like that were apt to have nasty dispositions. Rosie Tanguay said the trouble with Bea Brown was that she had never worked a day in her life, and the conversations broke into little groups after that, desultory voices overlapping. Quick barks of laughter punctuated one tale, serious tooth-sucking accompanied another.

    Amy enjoyed this. Everything talked about was interesting to her, even the story of a refrigerator gone on the blink: a half gallon of chocolate ice cream melted in the sink, soured, and smelled to high hell by morning. The voices were comfortable and comforting; Amy, in her silence, looked from face to face. She was not excluded from any of this, but the women had the decency, or lack of desire, not to try to engage her in their conversations either. It took Amy's mind off things. She would have enjoyed it more, of course, if her mother hadn't been there, but the gentle commotion of the place gave them a certain respite from each other, even with the black line between them continuing to hover.

    Fat Bev hit a button on the soda machine and a can of Tab rocked noisily into place. She bent her huge body to retrieve it. "Three more weeks and Dottie can have sex," she said. The black line tightened between Amy and Isabelle. "She wishes it was three more months," and here the soda can was popped open. "But I take it Wally's getting irritable. Chomping at the bit."

    Amy swallowed the crust of her sandwich.

    "Tell him to take care of it himself," someone said, and there was laughter. Amy's heartbeat quickened, sweat broke out above her lip.

    "You get dry after a hysterectomy, you know." Arlene Tucker offered this with a meaningful nod of her head.

    "I didn't."

    "Because you didn't have your ovaries out." Arlene nodded again--she was a woman who believed what she said. "They yanked the whole business with Dot."

    "Oh, my mother went crazy with the hot flashes," somebody said, and thankfully--Amy could feel her heart slow down, her face get cooler in the heat--irritable Wally was left behind; hot flashes and crying jags were talked of instead.

    Isabelle wrapped up the remains of her sandwich and returned it to her lunch bag. "It's really too warm to eat," she murmured to Fat Bev, and it was the first time Amy had heard her mother mention the heat.

    "Oh, Jesus, that would be nice." Bev chuckled, her big chest rising. "Never too hot for me to eat."

    Isabelle smiled and took a lipstick from her purse.

    Amy yawned. She was suddenly exhausted; she could have put her head on the table right there and fallen asleep.

    "Honey, I'm curious," Fat Bev was saying. She had just lit a cigarette and was gazing through the smoke at Amy. She picked a piece of tobacco from her lip, glancing at it before she flicked it to the floor. "What was it made you decide to cut your hair?"

    The black line vibrated and hummed. Without wanting to, Amy looked at her mother. Isabelle was applying lipstick in a hand mirror with her head tilted slightly back; her hand with the lipstick stopped.

    "It's cute," Bev added. "Cute as could be. I was just curious, is all. With a head full of hair like yours."

    Amy turned her face toward the window, touching the tip of her ear. Women tossed their lunch bags into the trash, brushing crumbs from their fronts, yawning with fists to their mouths as they stood up.

    "Probably cooler that way," Fat Bev said.

    "It is. Much cooler." Amy looked at Bev and then away.

    Fat Bev sighed loudly. "Okay, Isabelle," she said. "Come on. It's back to the salt mines we go."

    Isabelle was pressing her lips together, snapping her pocketbook shut. "That's right," she said, not looking at Amy. "There's no rest for the weary, you know."


    But Isabelle had her story. And years before when she had first shown up in town, renting the old Crane house out on Route 22, installing her few possessions and infant daughter (a serious-looking child with a head of pale, curly hair), there had been some curiosity among the members of the Congregational church, and among the women she joined in the office room at the mill as well.

    But the young Isabelle Goodrow had not been forthcoming. She answered simply that her husband was dead, as well as her parents, and that she had moved down the river to Shirley Falls to have a better chance at earning a living. Really, nobody knew much more. Although a few people noticed that when she had first arrived in town she wore her wedding ring, and that after a while she didn't wear it anymore.

    She did not seem to make friends. She did not make enemies either, although she was a conscientious worker and as a result went through a series of promotions. Each time there was some grumbling in the office room, this last time in particular, when she had risen well above the others by becoming the personal secretary to Avery Clark, but no one wished her any ill. There were jokes, remarks, made behind her back at times, about how she needed a good roll in the hay to loosen her up, but that kind of thing lessened as the years went by. At this point she was an old-timer. Amy's fear that her mother was seen as a snob was not particularly warranted. It was true the women gossiped about one another, but Amy was too young to understand that the kind of familial acceptance they had for each other extended to her mother as well.

    Still, no one would claim to know Isabelle. And certainly no one guessed the poor woman right now was going through hell. If she seemed thinner than usual, a little more pale, well, it was dreadfully hot. So hot that even now, at the end of the day, the heat rose up from the tar as Amy and Isabelle walked across the parking lot.

    "Have a good evening, you two," Fat Bev called out, as she hoisted herself into her car.


    The geraniums on the windowsill over the sink had bright red heads of bloom the size of softballs, but two more leaves had turned yellow. Isabelle, dropping her keys on the table, noticed this immediately and went to pluck them off. If she had known the summer was going to be this horrible she would not have bothered to buy any geraniums at all. She would not have filled the front window boxes with lavender petunias, or planted tomatoes and marigolds and Patient Lucys out back. At their slightest drooping now she felt a sense of doom. She pressed her fingers into the potted soil, checking for dampness and finding it too damp, actually, because geraniums needed bright sun, and not this soggy heat. She dropped the leaves into the garbage beneath the sink, stepping back to let Amy get by.

    It was Amy who made their dinner these nights. In the olden days (which was the phrase that Isabelle used in her mind to refer to their lives before this summer) they used to take turns, but now it was all up to Amy. A tacit understanding: this was the least Amy could do--open a can of beets and fry some hamburgers in a pan. She stood now opening cupboards slowly, poking an idle finger into the hamburger meat. "Wash your hands," Isabelle said, and moved past her toward the stairs.

    But the telephone, tucked neatly into the corner of the counter, began to ring, and both Isabelle and Amy felt a quickening of alarm. As well as startled hopefulness: sometimes it went for days without making a sound.

    "Hello?" Amy said, and Isabelle stopped with her foot on the stair.

    "Oh, hi," Amy said. Putting her hand over the phone and not looking at her mother, she said, "It's for me."

    Isabelle walked slowly up the stairs. "Yeah," she heard Amy say. And then in a moment Amy said more quietly, "How's your dog these days?"

    Isabelle walked softly to her bedroom. Who did Amy know that owned a dog? Her bedroom, tucked under the eaves, was stifling at this time of day, but Isabelle closed the door, and did it noisily, so Amy would hear: See how I give you privacy.

    And Amy, twirling the telephone cord around her arm, heard the door close and understood, but knew her mother only wanted to look good for a moment, score an easy point or two. "I can't," Amy said into the phone, pressing her palm over the hamburger meat. And then, in a moment, "No, I haven't told her yet."

    Isabelle, leaning against her bedroom door, did not think of herself as eavesdropping. It was more that she was too agitated to go about the business of washing her face or changing her clothes while Amy was still on the phone. But Amy didn't appear to be saying much, and in a few moments Isabelle heard her hang up. Then there was the clanking sound of pots and pans, and Isabelle went into the bathroom to shower. After that she would say her prayers, and then go down for dinner.

    Although really, Isabelle was getting discouraged with this prayer business. She was aware of the fact that by the time Christ was her age he had already gone bravely to the cross and hung there patiently with vinegar pressed to his lips, having gathered his courage previously while he wandered through the olive groves. But she, living here in Shirley Falls (although she had suffered her own betrayal by her Judas-like daughter, she thought, shaking baby powder over her breasts), had no olive trees to walk through, and no courage to speak of either. Perhaps even no faith. She had doubts these days if God cared about her plight at all. He was an elusive fellow, no matter what anyone said.

    What the Reader's Digest said was that if you kept on praying, your ability to pray would improve, but Isabelle wondered if the Reader's Digest might not have a tendency to make things a bit simple. She had enjoyed those articles "I Am Joe's Brain" or "I Am Joe's Liver," but the "Praying: Practice Makes Perfect" was really, when you thought about it, a little mundane.

    After all, she had tried. She had tried for years to pray, and she would try again right now, lying down on her white bedspread, her skin moist from the shower, closing her eyes against the low white ceiling above her, to pray for His love. Ask and you shall receive. This was tricky business. You didn't want to ask for the wrong thing, go barking up the wrong tree. You didn't want God to think you were selfish by asking for things, the way the Catholics did. Arlene Tucker's husband had gone to Mass specifically to pray for a new car, and to Isabelle this was appalling. If Isabelle was going to get specific she wouldn't be so vulgar as to ask for a car--she would pray for a husband, or a better daughter. Except she wouldn't, of course. (Please God, send me a husband, or at least a daughter I can stand.) No, instead she would lie there on her bedspread and pray only for God's love and guidance, and try to let Him know she was available for these things if He cared to give her a sign. But she felt nothing, only the drops of sweat arriving once more above her lip and beneath her arms in the heat of this small bedroom. She was tired. God was probably tired as well. She sat up and slipped on her bathrobe and went down to the kitchen to eat with her daughter.

    It was difficult.

    For the most part they avoided each other's eyes, and Amy did not seem to find it necessary to take on the responsibility of a conversation. This stranger, my daughter. It could be a title for something in the Reader's Digest, if it hadn't already been done, and maybe it had, because it sounded familiar to Isabelle. Well, she wasn't going to think anymore, couldn't stand to think anymore. She fingered the Belleek china creamer sitting on the table in front of her, the delicate, shell-like, shimmering creamer that had belonged to her mother. Amy had filled it for Isabelle's tea; Isabelle liked tea with her meals when the weather was hot.

    Isabelle, unable to contain her curiosity and telling herself that all things considered she had every right to know, said finally, "Who were you talking to on the telephone?"

    "Stacy Burrows." This was said flatly, right before hamburger meat was pushed into Amy's mouth.

    Isabelle sliced one of the canned beets on her plate, trying to place this Stacy girl's face.

    "Blue eyes?"

    "What?"

    "Is she the girl with the big blue eyes and red hair?"

    "I guess so." Amy frowned slightly. She was annoyed at the way her mother's face was tilted on the end of her long neck, like some kind of garter snake. And she hated the smell of baby powder.

    "You guess so?"

    "I mean, yeah, that's her."

    There was the faint sound of silverware touching the plates; they both chewed so quietly their mouths barely moved.

    "What is it her father does for a living?" Isabelle eventually asked. "Is he connected to the college somehow?" She knew he was certainly not connected to the mill.

    Amy shrugged with food in her mouth. "Mmm-know."

    "Well you must have some idea what the man does for a living."

    Amy took a swallow of milk and wiped her mouth with her hand.

    "Please." Isabelle dropped her eyelids with disgust, and Amy wiped with a napkin this time.

    "He teaches there, I guess," Amy acknowledged.

    "Teaches what."

    "Psychology. I think."

    There was nothing to say to that. If it was true, then to Isabelle it meant simply that the man was crazy. She did not know why Amy needed to choose the daughter of a crazy man to be friends with. She pictured him with a beard, and then remembered that the Mr. Robertson horror had had a beard as well, and her heart began to beat so fast she became almost breathless. The scent of baby powder rose from her chest.

    "What," said Amy, looking up, although her head was still bent forward over her plate, a piece of toast, the inner edge soggy and bloodied with meat, about to go into her mouth.

    Isabelle shook her head and gazed past her at the white curtain that billowed slightly in the window. It was like a car accident, she thought. How afterward you kept saying to yourself, If only the truck had already gone through the intersection by the time I got there. If only Mr. Robertson had passed through town before Amy got to high school. But you get into your car, your mind on other things, and all the while the truck is rumbling off the exit ramp, pulling into town, and you are pulling into town. And then it's over and your life will never be the same.

    Isabelle rubbed crumbs from her fingertips. Already it seemed hard to remember what their lives had been like before this summer. There had been anxieties--Isabelle could certainly remember that. There was never enough money, and it seemed she always had a run in her stocking (Isabelle never wore stockings that had a run, except when she lied about it and said it had just happened), and Amy had school projects due, some foolish relief map requiring clay and foam rubber, a sewing project in home ec class--those things cost money too. But now, eating her hamburger and toast across from her daughter (this stranger) while the hazy early evening sunlight fell against the stove and across the floor, Isabelle was filled with longing for those days, for the privilege of worrying about ordinary things.

    She said, because the silence of their eating was oppressive, and because she did not dare, somehow, return to the subject of Stacy, "That Bev. She really smokes too much. And she eats too much too."

    "I know," Amy answered.

    "Use your napkin, please." She couldn't help it: the sight of Amy licking ketchup from her fingers made her almost insane. Just like that, anger reared its ready head and filled Isabelle's voice with coldness. Only there might have been more than coldness, to be honest. To be really honest, you might say there had been the edge of hatred in her voice. And now Isabelle hated herself as well. She would take the remark back if she could, except it was too late, and poking at a sliced beet with her fork, she saw how Amy rolled her paper napkin beneath her palm, then put it on her plate.

    "She's nice, though," Amy said. "I think Fat Bev is nice."

    "No one said she wasn't nice."

    The evening stretched before them interminably; the hazy, muted sunlight had barely moved across the floor. Amy sat with her hands in her lap, her neck thrust forward like one of those foolish toy dogs you could sometimes see in the back of a car, whose head wagged back and forth at stop signs. "Oh, sit up straight," Isabelle wanted to say, but instead she said wearily, "You may be excused. I'll do the dishes tonight."

    Amy seemed to hesitate.

    In the olden days one would not leave the table until the other one was through. This practice, this courtesy, dated back to when Amy was a toddler, a slow eater always, perched on top of two Sears catalogues placed on her chair, her skinny legs dangling down. "Mommy," she would say anxiously, seeing that Isabelle was done with her meal, "will you still sit with me?" And Isabelle always sat. Many nights Isabelle was tired and restless, and frankly, she would have preferred to spend the time flipping through a magazine to relax, or at least to get up and get started on the dishes. And yet she would not tell the child to hurry, she did not want to upset that small digestive tract. It was their time together. She sat.

    Those days Amy had stayed at Esther Hatch's house while Isabelle was at work. An awful place, that Hatch house was--a run-down farmhouse on the outskirts of town, filled with babies and cats and the smell of cat urine. But it was the only arrangement Isabelle could afford. What was she supposed to do? She hated leaving Amy there, though, hated how Amy never said good-bye, how she would go immediately to the front window instead, climbing up on the couch to watch her mother drive away. Sometimes Isabelle would wave without looking as she backed down the driveway, because she couldn't bear to look. It was like something had been pushed down her throat to see Amy at the window like that, with her pale, unsmiling face. Esther Hatch said she never cried.

    But there was one period of time when Amy would do nothing except sit in a chair, and Esther Hatch complained that it gave her the willies, that if Amy couldn't get up and run around like a normal child she wasn't sure she could keep taking her in. This made Isabelle panic. She bought Amy a doll at Woolworth's, a plastic thing with springy, coarse platinum hair. The head fell off right away, but Amy seemed to love it. Not the doll so much as the head of the doll. She carried the head everywhere she went, and colored the plastic lips red. And apparently she stopped confining herself to a chair at Esther Hatch's house, because the woman did not complain to Isabelle again.

    But it was clear, then, why Isabelle would sit with the girl each night at their table in the kitchen. "Sing Itty Bitty Spider?" Amy might ask sweetly, squeezing a lima bean between her small fingers. And Isabelle--it was horrible--would say no. She would say no, she was too tired. But Amy was such a sweet little thing--she was so happy to have her mother right there, a mere arm's length across the table. Her legs would swing with happiness, her small wet mouth open in a smile, tiny teeth like white pebbles set in her pink gums.

    Isabelle closed her eyes, a familiar ache beginning in the center of her breastbone. But she had sat there, hadn't she? She had done that.

    "Please," she said now, opening her eyes. "You may be excused." Amy got up and left the room.


    The curtain moved again. This was a good sign, if Isabelle had been able to think about it that way, the evening air moving enough to move the curtain, a breeze strong enough to ripple the curtain lightly, holding itself out from the sill for a moment as though it were the dress of a pregnant woman, and then, just as quickly, silently falling back in its place, a few of its folds touching the screen. But Isabelle did not think that at least there was a breeze. She thought instead that the curtains needed to be washed, that they had not been washed in quite some time.

    Casting her eye about the kitchen, she was glad to see that at least the faucets shone, and the counters did not seem streaky, as they sometimes did, with the dried remains of cleanser. And there was the Belleek china creamer that had belonged to her mother, the delicate, shell-like, shimmering thing. Amy was the one who had brought it down from the cupboard a few months before and suggested they use it each night. "It was your mother's," Amy said, "and you like it so much." Isabelle had said all right. But now, suddenly, it seemed dangerous; a thing so easily to be swept by a sleeve, a bare arm, and smashed to bits on the floor.

    Isabelle rose and wrapped the leftover part of her hamburger in wax paper and put it in the refrigerator. She washed the plates, red-stained water from the beets swirling into the white sink. Only when the dishes were done and put away did she wash the Belleek china creamer. She washed it carefully, and dried it carefully, then put it far back in the cupboard, where it couldn't be seen.

    She heard Amy come out of her bedroom and move to the top of the stairs. Just as Isabelle was about to say that she didn't want the Belleek creamer used anymore, that it was too special a thing and too apt to get broken, Amy called down the stairs, "Mom, Stacy's pregnant. I just wanted you to know."

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Table of Contents

Elizabeth Strout's striking new novel explores the secrets of sexuality that jeopardize the love between a mother and her daughter. Amy Goodrow is a shy high school girl in a small town who falls in love with her math teacher, and together they cross the line between understandable fantasy and disturbing reality. Ultimately this emotional and physical trespass is discovered, bringing disgrace to Amy's mother, Isabelle, as it intensifies the shame she feels about her own past. In a fury, Isabelle lashes out against her daughter and then retreats to outraged silence. Amy withdraws, too, and mother and daughter live side by side but at an unbridgeable distance from each other. Please join us in the barnesandnoble.com Auditorium as we welcome Elizabeth Strout to chat about her novel, Amy and Isabelle, the First Fiction selection for the month of January.
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Introduction

"Stunning. . . . Heartbreaking. . . . This novelist is destined for great things." --San Francisco Chronicle

The story of a single mother and her teenage daughter during one fateful year, Amy and Isabelle illuminates the complexities that lie at the heart of the first, and most intimate, relationship in our lives. The questions, discussion topics, and suggested reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group's exploration of the ties that bind mother and daughter, and the secrets--about the past and present, about love and sexuality--that simmer beneath the surface.

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Foreword

1. Isabelle comes to Shirley Falls in order to start a new life. How does her desire to re-create herself affect the way she is perceived by other people? How does it influence the way she raises Amy?

2. Why is Amy so attracted to Fat Bev? What does the atmosphere at the mill offer her that she finds neither at home nor at school?

3. What role does Isabelle's "crush" on Avery Clark play in her life? How do her fantasies about being a loving wife to Avery compare to the way she treats Amy and runs their home? Which is the "real" Isabelle?

4. Before you know the reason for the estrange-ment between Amy and Isabelle, where do your sympathies lie? What insights do their brunch in the restaurant and window-shopping spree [pp. 54-56], as well as their uncomfortable encounter with Barbara Rawley at the grocery store [p. 57] give you into the nature of their relationship before the crisis?

5. At first Mr. Robertson appears to be a motivational teacher. Are his teaching methods appropriate and effective? Are his questions and comments to Amy and the other students commonplace, or unusual for a math teacher? Is it possible for a high school teacher to be "cool" without overstepping the boundaries between student and teacher? Why do you think he was drawn to Amy? At what point do Mr. Robertson's attentions toward her become unacceptable?

6. Why doesn't Amy tell Isabelle about Mr. Robertson at the beginning of their friendship? Why does Amy feel "as though something dark and wobbly sat deep within her chest" [p.78] after her as yet still innocent afternoons with Mr. Robertson?

7. What impact does Isabelle'sprotectiveness have on Amy's character and her sense of self? How did Isabelle's own childhood [p. 185] shape her character, not only as a mother, but as a woman?

8. Why does Strout choose Madame Bovary as the first serious book to engage Isabelle's passionate interest and attention? What parallels, if any, does Isabelle draw between Emma Bovary's life and her own? What other similarities exist between the two women?

9. Why does her conversation with Amy so quickly take a wrong turn when Isabelle hears about Amy and Mr. Robertson [p.159]? Why does Amy's accusation that Isabelle doesn't "know what the world is like" [p. 161] hurt her so deeply? Is Amy's outburst crueler than Isabelle's own impulse to shout at Amy "You weren't even supposed to be born" [p. 162]?

10. Why does Amy insist that she initiated the physical relationship? Is she only trying to protect Mr. Robertson, or does she have other reasons for taking the responsibility for what happened?

11. Mr. Robertson's seduction of Amy and his absolute disregard for the consequences of his act shock Isabelle. After her confrontation with him, why does she say that "in the end, he 'won.' In the end he had retained his sense of dignity and managed to destroy hers" [p. 166.]? Do you think that Isabelle mishandles the situation or is Mr. Robertson incapable feeling shame or remorse?

12. Why is Isabelle satisfied with Mr. Robertson's promise to leave town? Are her motives entirely unselfish? What would have been the consequences for both Amy and Isabelle if the scandal had been made public? Why did Isabelle react so differently to Amy's actions than Stacey's parents did to their daughter's pregnancy?

13. How accurate is Amy's belief that her mother is angry because Amy found someone to love her? What would make Amy think that? "It was not . . . the fact that she had been lying to Isabelle for so many months nor did Isabelle hate Amy for having taken up all the space in her life. She hated Amy because the girl had been enjoying the sexual pleasures of a man, while she herself had not" [p. 206]. Are Isabelle's feelings natural?
Why or why not?

14. Amy and Isabelle's conflict is presented within the context of small town life. How do the events in the lives of the women at the mill--like the break-up of Dottie Brown's marriage--and the revelations about Dr. Burrow's affair with Peg Dunlap and the secret relationship between the high school principal and the Spanish teacher, enhance the book?

15. Do you think the novel would have unfolded differently if Amy and Isabelle had lived in a large city? In what ways does the story about the abduction of a teenage girl in the neighboring town mirror what is happening in Amy's and Isabelle's lives?

16. What is the significance of Amy's relationship with Paul Bellows? What purpose do they serve in each other's lives?

17. Is Isabelle's reaction to Amy's involvement with Mr. Robertson justified after she reveals her own past to Dottie and Bev? Were both Amy and Isabelle particularly vulnerable because they lived in fatherless homes? How/why was this incident the impetus for Isabelle to confront her own past and to help Amy find hers?

18. Why does Strout describe the changing seasons in such detail throughout the book? What parallels are there between the rhythms of the natural world and the rhythms of life in the town? Does this add to the flow and structure of the book or did you feel it was unnecessary or even intrusive?

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Interviews & Essays

An exquisitely nuanced exploration of the complex relationship between a single mother and her teenage daughter, Elizabeth Strout's Amy and Isabelle is certain to find a ready readership among fans of Alice Hoffman, Anne Tyler, and Sue Miller. But Strout's success didn't come overnight; the authorial sensitivity and poise she displays in her debut novel is the result of years of honing her craft. We asked Elizabeth Strout to give readers some insight into how she got her stunning novel published by Random House. Here is what she had to say:

The Beginning of a Novel

When I began to see that Amy and Isabelle was turning into a novel, I felt nervous; I was not at all sure how a person went about writing a novel. For a long while I had assumed I would be a short-story writer. I liked reading stories, and as a young learning-to-write writer, the story form seemed more manageable to me. Amy and Isabelle first appeared in a short story I wrote — and never published — almost 12 years ago, but Amy's name was Rebekah, then Pam, and Isabelle had no name at all; she was simply "the mother." I usually worked on more than one story at a time, and this particular story found its way back to the table and stayed there, lying dormant for months. I had been sending my stories to The New Yorker, and Daniel Menaker always responded with a letter explaining why the piece ultimately didn't work. Once, after rejecting a story, he telephoned to encourage me to keep writing. "Never stop," he said. "No matter what. Don't stop."

But it was when he called me again, a few years later, to talk to me about another story, that an idea gradually began to take hold in my mind that would ultimately change my work a great deal. "That boyfriend," he said, referring to a secondary character in the story I had sent, "that almost sadistic boyfriend — don't forget, he has his story, too." It had not occurred to me. Not really. I had been focused on the main character, and the vast reasons behind any other character's behavior had stayed outside my scope of understanding. It took me some time to fully absorb the importance of this, but it coincided with changes that had already begun to take place in my work, and gradually I came to the realization that my work, my vision, my canvas, all needed to be bigger; that life, after all, was a big thing, full of huge complications. I went back to the story of the girl whose mother had cut off her hair and discovered that not only did the mother now take on a name, Isabelle, but also I found myself writing the line "But Isabelle had her own story." And in fact, the story of Isabelle would become a very major part of this book, even though when I first wrote that line I thought the book would belong mostly to Amy.

Giving myself permission so early in the book to make the declaration that Isabelle had her own story helped me discover what her story was, but it also made the book more fun to write — because now I saw that of course all the people in Shirley Falls had complicated, and very human, reasons for the actions they took, or didn't take, and I saw how these lives, in both large and little ways, connected to the other lives around them.

When the book was finally done, I contacted Daniel Menaker, who in the interim had become an editor at Random House. His response — to enthusiastically buy the book — was for me the culmination of many years of my learning day after day what it means to be a writer: that everyone has their own story. —Elizabeth Strout

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Reading Group Guide

1. Isabelle comes to Shirley Falls in order to start a new life. How does her desire to re-create herself affect the way she is perceived by other people? How does it influence the way she raises Amy?

2. Why is Amy so attracted to Fat Bev? What does the atmosphere at the mill offer her that she finds neither at home nor at school?

3. What role does Isabelle's "crush" on Avery Clark play in her life? How do her fantasies about being a loving wife to Avery compare to the way she treats Amy and runs their home? Which is the "real" Isabelle?

4. Before you know the reason for the estrange-ment between Amy and Isabelle, where do your sympathies lie? What insights do their brunch in the restaurant and window-shopping spree [pp. 54-56], as well as their uncomfortable encounter with Barbara Rawley at the grocery store [p. 57] give you into the nature of their relationship before the crisis?

5. At first Mr. Robertson appears to be a motivational teacher. Are his teaching methods appropriate and effective? Are his questions and comments to Amy and the other students commonplace, or unusual for a math teacher? Is it possible for a high school teacher to be "cool" without overstepping the boundaries between student and teacher? Why do you think he was drawn to Amy? At what point do Mr. Robertson's attentions toward her become unacceptable?

6. Why doesn't Amy tell Isabelle about Mr. Robertson at the beginning of their friendship? Why does Amy feel "as though something dark and wobbly sat deep within her chest" [p.78] after her as yet still innocent afternoons with Mr. Robertson?

7. What impact does Isabelle'sprotectiveness have on Amy's character and her sense of self? How did Isabelle's own childhood [p. 185] shape her character, not only as a mother, but as a woman?

8. Why does Strout choose Madame Bovary as the first serious book to engage Isabelle's passionate interest and attention? What parallels, if any, does Isabelle draw between Emma Bovary's life and her own? What other similarities exist between the two women?

9. Why does her conversation with Amy so quickly take a wrong turn when Isabelle hears about Amy and Mr. Robertson [p.159]? Why does Amy's accusation that Isabelle doesn't "know what the world is like" [p. 161] hurt her so deeply? Is Amy's outburst crueler than Isabelle's own impulse to shout at Amy "You weren't even supposed to be born" [p. 162]?

10. Why does Amy insist that she initiated the physical relationship? Is she only trying to protect Mr. Robertson, or does she have other reasons for taking the responsibility for what happened?

11. Mr. Robertson's seduction of Amy and his absolute disregard for the consequences of his act shock Isabelle. After her confrontation with him, why does she say that "in the end, he 'won.' In the end he had retained his sense of dignity and managed to destroy hers" [p. 166.]? Do you think that Isabelle mishandles the situation or is Mr. Robertson incapable feeling shame or remorse?

12. Why is Isabelle satisfied with Mr. Robertson's promise to leave town? Are her motives entirely unselfish? What would have been the consequences for both Amy and Isabelle if the scandal had been made public? Why did Isabelle react so differently to Amy's actions than Stacey's parents did to their daughter's pregnancy?

13. How accurate is Amy's belief that her mother is angry because Amy found someone to love her? What would make Amy think that? "It was not . . . the fact that she had been lying to Isabelle for so many months nor did Isabelle hate Amy for having taken up all the space in her life. She hated Amy because the girl had been enjoying the sexual pleasures of a man, while she herself had not" [p. 206]. Are Isabelle's feelings natural?
Why or why not?

14. Amy and Isabelle's conflict is presented within the context of small town life. How do the events in the lives of the women at the mill--like the break-up of Dottie Brown's marriage--and the revelations about Dr. Burrow's affair with Peg Dunlap and the secret relationship between the high school principal and the Spanish teacher, enhance the book?

15. Do you think the novel would have unfolded differently if Amy and Isabelle had lived in a large city? In what ways does the story about the abduction of a teenage girl in the neighboring town mirror what is happening in Amy's and Isabelle's lives?

16. What is the significance of Amy's relationship with Paul Bellows? What purpose do they serve in each other's lives?

17. Is Isabelle's reaction to Amy's involvement with Mr. Robertson justified after she reveals her own past to Dottie and Bev? Were both Amy and Isabelle particularly vulnerable because they lived in fatherless homes? How/why was this incident the impetus for Isabelle to confront her own past and to help Amy find hers?

18. Why does Strout describe the changing seasons in such detail throughout the book? What parallels are there between the rhythms of the natural world and the rhythms of life in the town? Does this add to the flow and structure of the book or did you feel it was unnecessary or even intrusive?

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 72 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 20, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    What Wonderful Writing

    I read the Pulitzer Prize winning "Olive Kitteridge" and was quite impressed. After reading "Amy and Isabelle," I now rate Elizabeth Strout as one of my favorite writers. She writes with such seemingly simply details, and yet the words are evocative.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 6, 2001

    Who Reads This Stuff?

    Could be the most predictable, hackneyed piece of treacle ever written. Every thought and event is telegraphed pages ahead, and the only emotion remaining at the end is THANK GOD ITS OVER. I only read it because my wife made me, and she didn't like it either. Save your money.

    2 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 26, 2012

    Worthwhile

    Not as strong as Olive Kittredge, but with segments of well -crafted writing that are delightful. Strout paints a vivid picture of small town New England and delights us with her characters.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 25, 2012

    I love Strout's descriptions -- she is a master at creating mood

    I love Strout's descriptions -- she is a master at creating mood, and
    seeing the world through her characters' emotional filters.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 2, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Nice character study.

    This is the story of a single mother and her daughter. Sure, it seems simple enough, and actually the book was quite simple. It covers a single year, but an important one. The sexual awakening of the younger Goodrow, the quest for self-improvement of the elder. There is hardly any dialogue in this book, but a lot of thought processes between the two main characters. It was very honest, and I loved reading Isabelle's thoughts as she tried to read Shakespeare following an embarrassing encounter with her daughter. Amy didn't capture my interest nearly as well as her mother. I thought that the author did a fantastic job with her character, especially with Isabelle's quest for acceptance. I recommend this one.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 20, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    You know these people!

    I found the characters in the story so very real and rich. This is not a story that takes you roaring to a dramatic turn but I felt a part of these characters, felt a part of the complicated small town landscape that the author creates for us. A very good read!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 28, 2000

    A REMARKABLY ASSURED DEBUT

    With Amy and Isabelle, a compellingly told mother/daughter tale, Elizabeth Strout makes her literary debut. We can only hope there are many encores for this first-time novelist who relates her story with resonant assurance. When this is coupled with Ms. Strout's balanced compassion for her characters and her sharp eye for the precise telling detail, Amy and Isabelle becomes a work to be admired and savored. Isabelle Goodrow and her 16-year-old daughter, Amy, make their home in a small New England mill town, Shirley Falls. This is a lugubrious community where in the hot summer that Amy turns 16 and comes to dislike the sight of her mother, the river is 'just a dead brown snake of a thing lying flat through the center of town.' Their rented house is in an area called the Basin, where many blue collar workers live. Isabelle, a tentative woman who wears her hair in a flat French twist and works in the office room of the mill, would never dream of buying that house because she 'could not bear to stop thinking that her real life would happen somewhere else.' Hers was a solitary existence, save for Amy. Isabelle is aloof and easily wounded, hurt when the deacon's wife disapproves of the leaves Isabelle had used to decorate the church altar. And, she is proper, always sitting toward the rear of the sanctuary as her mother had taught her to do. This propriety, blended with Isabelle's innate fastidiousness made Amy's illegitimacy even more of a shameful secret. Amy, too, was reserved. She had but one friend, Stacy, with whom she shared cigarettes, candy bars, and confidences during school lunch hours. A good student with a love for poetry, Amy had long golden hair and a slim well-developed body which made her all the more self-conscious. During classes she would duck her head down, hiding her face behind her hair. When a substitute teacher, Mr. Robertson, teases her saying, 'Come on out, Amy Goodrow, everyone's been asking about you,' there is little indication of how Amy will respond. Yet respond she does as first she is puzzled and then exultant in the burgeoning sexuality that Mr. Robertson coaxes from her. They are, of course, discovered. The forced awareness of Amy's duplicity and also of her emerging womanhood is a devastating blow to Isabelle, who feels she has spent her life for naught. In fact, Isabelle feels as though she has died: 'Her `life' went on. But she felt little connection to anything, except for the queasiness of panic and grief.' And Amy, too, feels betrayed as she realizes that Mr. Robertson has used rather than cared for her. '.....ever since she found his number disconnected, found out that he had gone away; she could not stop her inner trembling.' With Amy and Isabelle Ms. Strout has proven herself to be a considerably gifted writer. She has drawn vividly erotic scenes, and deftly limned some of life's most tender moments. There is every indication that she well understands and cares deeply for the characters she has created.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 6, 2000

    God, let us have mercy on ourselves

    A beautifully writtenbook about the ways in which women ruin their lives by not forgiving themselves for their mistakes, especially sexual ones. That redemption is in confession to other women is refreshing (no shrinks, no authority figures to account to). The male figures are too flat. Their stories, short and sweet, are that they were ruined by women: the teacher's mother was an alcoholic, the filandering husband didn't get enough nooky at home. Most of the men have no story: the kindly pharmacist, Amy's birth father, the father of the child given up for adoption, their motivation is kept from us. Therefore, this wonderful work is flawed by being another male-bashing women's chronicle, with Woman as Victim of Men as the main character in many forms.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 23, 2014

    I Also Recommend:

    A thoughtful and engaging account of how one generation is affec

    A thoughtful and engaging account of how one generation is affected by the previous one - and how certain vulnerabilities are evoked when probkesm remain unsolved. There is a chain effect, for sure, but then, there are cross roads too. There are places where new decisions can be made and new pathways formed. Amy and Isabelle, mother and daughter, make important choices that change the trajectory of their lives forever.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 13, 2014

    My new favorite Strout novel

    Eliizabeth Strout always writes with extremely perceptive and deep details into each character's thoughts and motivations. I love reading her books for that reason. I think Amy and Isabelle is the most intimate and knowing of all her books- about a mother and teenaged daughter living together in a New England town. I would especially recommend for women, who may see themselves a bit in either or both of these characters.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 22, 2013

    Amy and Sonic Love Story- 5

    The next day Amy woke up around 9 so she could get ready with her date with Sonic. She was still expecting him like always but the way he promised her yesterday gave her some hope. She spent the next 2 hours getting ready, like having a shower and getting dressed. She decided to wear her usual clothes. It was now 11:30. She was in her livingroom waiting for the door to knock. "Might as well watch something while I'm waiting." She reached for the remote that was sitting on a small coffee table and spent the last 30 minutes flicking throught all the channels and was getting frustrated with there beening nothing good to watch. "Why is there never anything good on during the night?" She saided out loud and nearly flung the remote on the floor then just at that moment she heard the clock on her wall chime 12. Amy switched off her T.V. off and 5 minutes had now passed and Sonic still wasn't here. Amy sighes. "I knew it was to good to be ture." She stood up disppointed. She was ready to walk up the stairs when she was startled by someone knocking on the door. Amy gasped. "Could it be?" Amy turned and opened the door. Sure enough there was Sonic the Hedgehog standing on the side. "I can't belive it!" She shouted in her thoughts. "Hey Amy! Ready to go?" Sonic asked with a warm smile. Amy still couldn't belive that Sonic was here. "Uhh...yea!" She repiled warmly. She blushed a bit when she turned to close her door and lock it. When she was done she turned back to Sonic. "So where are we going?" She asked. She wanted to give him a big hug bit that will probably make him run away so she didn't. "Well I got a lot of things planned for today." Before Amy could said anything Sonic picked her up and zoomed off. Amy couldn't help but laugh. Since it was a nice day Sonic decided to take Amy to his favorite place which was a small hill with a giant oak tree on top surrounded by a large forest with a clear blue lake at the bottom. He set Amy down on her feet and she breathless by sight. "Oh wow I never seen anything like this before." Amy walked over to lake and Sonic followed. "It's so beautiful." Amy saided. Sonic smiled as he saided. "Yeah. It's almost as beautiful as you are." Sonic's eyes dropped a bit as he looked at her. "Did he just said what I think he just said?" Amy thought. "Uhh...what did you just said?" Amy asked Sonic. Sonic turned back to Amy and moved closer to Amy which made here blush like crazy. "Amy, have I ever told you how cute you are?" He still had his eyes drop. Now Amy couldn't belive it. Sonic actually though she was dreaming. "N..no." Sonic leaned in closer and tried to kiss her but Amy stopped him and this surprised Sonic. He stood back with a disappointed look on his face. "Sonic, are you alright?" Amy asked. "Fine." Sonic saided. He then leaded Amy to the tree where they sat side by side talking about suff. Like what was Eggman up to or what thier friends had been doing. A few hours had now passed and Sonic took Amy back to Station Square. "You know the date isn't over yet." Sonic saided. "Really? What else do you have plan?" Amy asked. "You'll see." He saided and with that he picked her up again and zoomed off. Tails, who was coming out of jewel store at the time and watched them go. "Something is wrong with Sonic but what?" Tails asked himself. "Oh well. I figure it out later. Right now I have more important things to worry about." Tails raced off.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 22, 2013

    XY

    Amazing! Keep going! Read my sonic story at new jersey!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 19, 2012

    Interesting

    Interesting

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 26, 2011

    I loved this book and could not put it down!

    I couldn't wait to find out how this one was gonna end!

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 5, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    This is a Wierd Book

    This book was different than any book I have ever read. It was dark and spooky. I kept on reading, I don't really know why,I needed to find the end. The two main characters were wierd, slow witted and just plain crazy. I didn't like how the other characters were discribed, one was fat, another was a chain smoker, one was abused and another has female surgery and was wasting away.I never really knew in what time period this was written in. A male teacher having sex with a student age 15 and was not reported.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 17, 2007

    The Book that Sucked me In

    Amy and Isabelle is one of the best written books I personally have ever read. This is one of those books that sucks you in. You can't put it down until you've read from cover to back. Elizabeth Strout has done a fantastic job writing this book so it relates to the struggles teenage girls have with their mothers. Amy and Isabelle have a tough relationship between them after Amy makes some sexual mistakes with her math teacher. Amy deals with the problems of talking to her mother, like most girls her age. Isabelle lets her past get in the way of her relationship with her daughter. The author makes you wonder about all the past experiences that has happened between this mother and daughter until an emotional conclusion. Strout also does a great job of telling this story from both sides. Neither one of the girls is necessarily right, and you can feel for both of them. I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the struggles between a mother and daughter.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 23, 2006

    The Book That Ate My Life

    Amy and Isabelle was written less than ten years ago, but the elegant style and word choice makes it feel as though it was written fifty years ago. The content is so deep and insightful, that it's one of those books that you can't just spend a lazy weekend indulging in, because it makes you think because it's REAL. The things that happen in this book, the feelings that the characters carry in their hearts, these are things that are actually realistic. Isabelle and Amy have a difficult,complex mother-daughter relationship, but they are also individual people, and they have trouble caring for themselves and each other at the same time. Isabelle has pushed her conservative values and etiquette onto Amy so much that Amy is shy, timid, and naive and when her substitute math teacher Mr. Robertson helps her explore a mature, sexual, and intellectual side of herself that she's never let out before, she falls into an unhealthy, emotionally dependant relationship with him. And when Isabelle discovers this, she is not only disappointed as a mother, but frustrated and confused as a person because she's been through a similar situation in the past, a situation that is merely hinted at until an emotional scene towards the end of the book. The author explores the deepest thoughts and desires of her characters, even ones they wouldn't dare vocalize. In another customer review, Wikiola said something about how both sides of this story, Amy's and Isabelle's, are equally represented. You don't side with one or the other. Elizabeth Strout shows us that both of their actions, even the most disgusting and evil, are perhaps not justifiable, but at least understandable. In the end, you truly feel for these two people, and hope that they can find a functional way to show the love they both have for each other. I would recommend it to anyone who wants a mentally and emotionally stimulating read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 18, 2006

    A Great Read

    I enjoyed this book very much and have, in fact, passed it on to two friends! The characters were great and the relationship between Amy and Isabelle was wonderful to read about. I'd definitely recommend this one.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 16, 2003

    Amy and Isabelle: A Novel

    If you're a teenage daughter you may like this book. It has many real life situations that can happen in a mother-daughter relationship. When reading this book you get inside the characters and really get to know their feelings. A lot of times mothers can be way over-protective but if they are it's because they want the best for you and have more experience in life.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 29, 2003

    Amy and Isabelle: A Novel

    This book would be a good book to read if you like to read about things that may acctually happen between a mother/daughter relationship. I was really suprised in many things the writer wrote in this book because not many writers write like this. In this story you really get to know the characters and know more about their life. I think that if you are a young girl, you will learn some lessons and values from this book.

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 72 Customer Reviews

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