Tense relations

Elizabeth Strout, author of "Amy and Isabelle," talks about teen-age sexuality and the intense relationship between mothers and daughters.


Fiona Morgan
April 9, 1999 11:00PM (UTC)

For a shy mother and daughter, the trouble begins with a compliment. Self-conscious Amy, blessed with flowing Rapunzel-like blonde hair, is thrilled to hear her math teacher tell her, "Only God, my dear, could love you for yourself alone and not your yellow hair." Unknown to Amy's mother, Isabelle, a fierce romance is blooming in the girl's mind for this man who encourages students to "question everything." She clings to his carefully chosen words, building a fantasy of first love. When the fantasy becomes physical, a palpable tension grows between mother and daughter.

Amy's taboo relationship and deception is almost more than Isabelle can take. A tidy secretary at a mill, she keeps mostly to herself. One long, humid summer, when she finds herself working side by side with her daughter amidst a cast of other secretly distressed and hilariously disgruntled women, Isabelle must confront her anger and jealousy. In the process, her own carefully guarded secrets of guilt, familial loss and sexual awakening surface. While the time period of Elizabeth Strout's novel is unspecified, there's a certain '60s-era progressivism which encroaches on the town but fails to help people like the aloof Isabelle outgrow the Puritanism of their roots and move forward, slowly, out of their encasement.

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Strout gently removes the roofs from the houses in the small town of Shirley Falls, giving us an intimate view of characters like Fat Bev, who makes scatological announcements, and Amy's friend Stacy, whose parents decide to go public about her teen-age pregnancy. Strout exposes their secret hopes and fears -- however ridiculous or sad -- with compassion and humor.

"Amy and Isabelle" is Strout's first novel and has spent two weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list since being released in January. In the wake of her success, Strout -- has been teaching literature and writing in New York for 10 years -- has been compared to writers like Mona Simpson and Anne Tyler. Strout stopped by Salon's offices on the West Coast leg of her book tour to talk about her newfound success and her thoughts on the pressures of raising teen-agers.

The idea of the black thread that connects the mother and daughter is interesting, because it seems really taut and fragile, rather than the term "bond," which most people use when they talk about family. Can you talk about that metaphor?

That's how I envisioned Amy seeing it, this black line. When it's first mentioned, there is this sense that there's no getting away from it. Even if you leave each other's presence -- and of course they're stuck together physically so much it's awful -- but even if they're physically separated, there's this terrible sense of connection. And yet at the same time Amy feels sorry for her mother, seeing her in Avery Clark's office, and feels this ball of love rolling over the black line. So it is this cable, this skinny little fragile thread, that carries all these enormous emotions -- being repulsed by each other, and yet caring so deeply for each other. But it did spring mostly from the sense that they can't get away from each other, which I think is actually how adolescent girls sometimes feel. There's this sense of invasion when a girl is trying to grow up, get out, get away.

Your daughter must have been very young when you wrote this.

Yes, she was. Somebody asked me last night at a reading, "Did you base this on your daughter?" and the answer is just plain no, nor did I base it on myself and my mother. But being a mother and being a daughter helped. My daughter was quite young when I first started it, and she was one of the few people I would actually talk about the book to. She's just a little sweetheart, and she'd come home from school and say, "How was your day?" And I'd say, "Listen to this! Fat Bev had to break up a fight in the bathroom." She knew in a certain way all along what the book was about. And now, between the time that it was sold to the time that it was published, she's become a teen-ager. It's ironic, that now I have a girl the age of Amy.

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It's impressive the way you capture the mood swings that both of them share. You walk into the grocery store feeling terrific and you walk out with dark clouds inside your head. That seems so true to life to being a teen-ager.

I think it's so hard being a teen-ager. I know it's been a long time since I've been one, but my heart is very much back there. I think the mood swings are so confusing. They are affected by the people you live with. If you're a teen-ager, your mood swings do affect your parents. You don't realize it, but of course they do. And vice versa. You might come home in a really good mood and your mother's not, and you feel horrible because you always feel responsible if your parent isn't happy, which is a terrible burden.

This book takes place in an unspecified time, but there are some clues that it's the late '60s or so. How do you think that the sexual revolution changed the mother-daughter relationship?

I think that probably the story of Isabelle would be a different one nowadays, because the fact that Stacy's pregnant and her parents decide not to hide it is really a pivotal turning point in society right there, because that's right on the edge. Before that, with Isabelle, to be pregnant without a husband was something to feel shameful about, and here it was turning around that Stacy was just going to go ahead and just be open about this. Obviously, if Isabelle had jumped ahead into that generation, her own pregnancy probably wouldn't have caused her the level of shame [it did].

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I was hoping to get to something that is timeless, which is just this tremendous feeling of claustrophobia between mother and daughter, even if the situation isn't such a loaded one as in the novel. I'm of the baby boomer generation, and my sense from my own experience and my friends is that we do have a different kind of relationship with our children. In some ways, they're much more peer-like. But at the same time it can be a little bit of a queer business having our children develop into sexual beings and people that are now making decisions about themselves and their bodies, and what drugs they'll use or not use. Something has changed definitely, and I would hope for the better.

The character Stacy has a very open relationship with her parents about sexuality, but she seems very dissatisfied, especially with her father's openness. It seems to frustrate her.

My daughter's 15 and I hear different things -- I'm trying not to invade her privacy at all -- [but] I am struck sometimes with her friends' need to still have parents. As much as it might seem to us, or my generation, good to be open about smoking marijuana or this or that, I'm struck with the fact that these kids still want somebody to say no, or to not be doing what they're doing secretly. So some of Stacy's problems with her father fit into the fact that he's not being a father to her the way she wants one, in some kind of traditional sense of the word.

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There were small steps that Isabelle takes in raising her daughter differently than she was raised. When Amy gets her period, she gives her a booklet, which is such a small step. But maybe the net effect, along with the changing times, is that it doesn't occur to Amy to be ashamed of her sexuality.

That's really how we do move, in such small, small steps. I remember my mother telling me that when we were babies, it didn't even occur to her to ask my father to get up in the middle of the night to feed us. And he was a perfectly nice man, but it just wasn't done. And that's quite a change, what my generation expects when the baby's born. Having a daughter, I'm even more interested in this, because what will she expect?

It's unusual and very refreshing for a novel to focus so much on a mother-daughter relationship and to keep it at the forefront of the whole story. How have people responded to that?

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When I was writing the book, I was afraid that Isabelle, since she is an odd person and very encased in her different problems ... wouldn't touch people, that she wouldn't get out of the A&P and mean anything to people. I've been amazed at people whose backgrounds are very different from this small mill-town, uptight woman ... who have said, there's so much of me in this daughter, or even in this mother.

I think Isabelle's hang-ups enable you to laugh at her and still care about her.

She's certainly pushed just about to the extreme. I think she's stopped short of being a caricature and is flesh and blood. Even how she has a crush on her boss and she fantasizes that she's been hit by a car. Even though it's almost laughable because it's so extreme, most of us have had crushes on people and had different fantasies and thoughts and been unnoticed by the object of our desires. She's at a safe enough distance that we don't feel that we're like her, but she has feelings that we have.

I read that you had some other interesting jobs on the way to becoming a writing teacher.

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I was a lawyer for about six months, years ago, but I've also been a secretary for about a hundred different places. I've been a cocktail waitress, and I've played the piano in bars, worked in a pub in Oxford, England, for a year. I always wanted to be a writer, so I was looking around for the job that would give me the most amount of time to devote myself to writing, but at the same time, I was full of self-doubt about whether or not I could really do it. That's what led me to law school. But it wasn't something that thrilled me -- and I also was quite bad at it. You hate to be terrible at something. I was not the least bit adversarial, and I don't know why I hadn't discovered that about myself earlier, but somehow that came as a surprise. I was supposed to get on the phone and threaten school superintendents because kids weren't getting what they were supposed to be getting, and I was such a wimp and it was so laughable and I was so frightened.

The good thing about the experience was it taught me that I couldn't avoid trying to be a writer. I wanted to avoid it, because it was so important to me, and the stakes were terribly high and the chance of not being able to ever really find my voice and get it done also seemed very high. But it was so dreadful trying to be something else. I came through the experience thinking, if I fail, I fail, but it's better than being something else.

You are not a single mother. Do you have friends who are single mothers whose experience you drew on?

I have wondered about that myself -- since I didn't come from a single mother and I haven't been a single mother. I have such respect for single parents. There a lot of them out there, doing the best they can. My closest friends don't even have children. I don't think that I knew single mothers real well. Originally, in one of the early, early drafts, Amy had a father, and I realized I had to get him out of there because the story was about the mother and the daughter. So to a certain extent, making her a single mother was simply a way to focus on their complicated feelings. But I have written short stories in the past about single mothers, so there's something clearly that I'm interested in.

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I stayed home with my daughter for her first four years before I went back to teaching, and I did feel at times like a single mother, which is not in any way to put down my husband. He was just out of the house, working. But it's such a huge responsibility to have a kid. It still blows me away. I know a number of mothers, and we were all kind of overwhelmed with it, but you don't dare say so, because we were supposed to be just so hip and doing it all, and so much better at being mothers than our mothers were. Nobody ever wanted to say, "Oh my God, I think I'm going to die, this is so hard." But I've noticed that in a lot of women there's this secret undercurrent, we feel guilty at how hard it sometimes feels.

I'd like to talk about the scene where Isabelle confronts the math teacher after she finds out he's been having a relationship with her daughter. This scene is the first time we ever see him not through Amy's idealizing eyes, and the new point of view is hard to take. We also get this sense that what Isabelle is confronting is much more than this guy.

Yeah, she is bringing with her everything that she's been sitting on. But Isabelle is a very shy person, and here she is actually doing something that is almost out of character, banging on doors and threatening to have somebody prosecuted. It's a moment where Isabelle is able to really act on her love for her daughter. I mean, she loves this girl, and she's been so uptight and so furious now, but that mother's sense of "I will kill you for hurting my child" is in her. I saw it as one of those moments where we can act on somebody else's behalf more strongly than we can on our own. She could certainly never scream at somebody that she thought had hurt her directly. But this is her daughter. Of course she feels like she failed at the end of it, but she tried, and she felt that fury that I think mothers feel when their children are hurt.


Fiona Morgan

Fiona Morgan is an associate editor for Salon News.

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