Sixteen-year-old Amy Goodrow and her mother, Isabelle, live in isolation, apart
from the other inhabitants of Shirley Falls, and though not physically, apart
from each other. Their tepid relationship stumbles along, until Amy is seen in
a car cavorting with her math teacher. As Amy falls in love and discovers her
sexuality, Isabelle feels shame about the jealousy her daughter's youth and sexuality
have awakened in her. Also awakened in Isabelle are the long-suppressed memories
of her own indiscretion. Already given to self-imposed isolation from the community,
Isabelle retreats from her daughter as well, creating a chasm that neither mother
nor daughter seem able to cross. Supporting this powerful family drama is a cast
of memorable working-class women reminiscent of Richard Russo's strong female
characters. While this may not be original territory, Strout's
insight, humor, and expansive storytelling make for an uncommonly complex and
poignant study of alienation and resilience. Lilus, Powells.com
Synopses & Reviews
With compassion, humor, and striking insight, 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. Keeping Isabelle and Amy as the main focus of her sharp, sympathetic eye, Elizabeth Strout attends to them all. As she does so, she reveals not only her deep affection for her characters, both serious and comic, but her profound wisdom about the human condition in general. She makes us care about these extraordinary ordinary people and makes us hope that they will find a way out of their often self-imposed emotional exile.
From the Hardcover edition.
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. This beautifully nuanced novel steers a course somewhere between the whimsy of Alice Hoffman and the compassionate insight of Anne Tyler and Sue Miller, and is sure to delight fans of all three. Publisher's Weekly
When Amy Goodrow, a shy high school student, falls in love with her math teacher, the love affair threatens the intimate relationship between Amy and her mother, Isabelle, whose feelings are influenced by the shame of her own past. A first novel. 100,000 first printing. Reprint.
In her stunning first novel, Amy and Isabelle, Elizabeth Strout evokes a teenager's alienation from her distant mother—and a parent's rage at the discovery of her daughter's sexual secrets. In most ways, Isabelle and Amy are like any mother and her 16-year-old daughter, a fierce mix of love and loathing exchanged in their every glance. And eating, sleeping, and working side by side in the gossip-ridden mill town of Shirley Falls doesn't help matters. But when Amy is discovered behind the steamed-up windows of a car with her math teacher, the vast and icy distance between mother and daughter becomes unbridgeable.
As news of the scandal reaches every ear, it is Isabelle who suffers from the harsh judgment of Shirley Falls, intensifying her shame about her own secret past. And as Amy seeks comfort elsewhere, she discovers the fragility of human happiness through other dramas, from the horror of a missing child to the trials of Fat Bev, the community peacemaker. Witty and often profound, Amy and Isabelle confirms Elizabeth Strout as a powerful new talent.
About the Author
Born in Portland, Maine, Elizabeth Strout now lives in New York City with her husband and daughter. She has been teaching literature and writing at Manhattan Community College for ten years and has also taught writing at the New School. Her fiction has appeared in many magazines, including The New Yorker.
About the Reader
Lili Taylor has starred in such films as Ship of Fools, Ransom, Girlstown, I Shot Andy Warhol, Short Cuts, Dogfight, and Say Anything. She appeared on television in HBO's Subway Stories and on stage in Three Sisters and Avenue Boys.
Reading Group Guide
1. Alice Munro's quote on the back of Amy & Isabelle speaks of the novel's concern with "the bravery and hard choices of what is called ordinary life." What kinds of courage and difficult decisions are dramatized in the book? What do you think Alice Munro means when she refers to "what is called ordinary life"?
2. In what ways do Isabelle Goodrow and Fat Bev represent "opposites"? One place they are contrasted is the beginning of chapter 3, pages 35-42.
3. How does the author use the weather, the river that runs through Shirley Falls, and other facets of the physical environment to complement the psychological themes of her novel, especially the relationship between Amy and Isabelle? Look at the first page of the novel for an important example. The first sentence is "It was terribly hot that summer Mr. Robertson left town, and and for a long while the river seemed dead." In what ways does this page represent the entire book?
4. A reviewer while praising Amy & Isabelle highly also said that the novel was generally "unbearably sad". Do you agree?
5. Why is it so shattering for Isabelle when Avery Clark and his wife don't show up for dessert (pages 264-266)?
6. Do you think that Elizabeth Strout wants the reader to judge Mr. Robertson as entirely immoral for his sexual transgression with Amy? Or are there positive aspects to his character? Look, for instance, at the meeting of Isabelle and Mr. Robertson on page 164-168.
7. Elizabeth Strout says that she started writing this novel as the story of Amy but that as she went along Isabelle became just as important if not more important. Do you think she is right? If so, why do you think Isabelle comes to share (or even dominate) center stage?
8. What (if any) overall idea or moral do you think Amy & Isabelle is meant to convey?
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's protectiveness 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?