Before she met Mr. Robertson, shy and awkward Amy would hide behind her long blonde curls. Taller than most of her classmates and much more developed, Amy's only friend is Stacy, who shocks the town by getting pregnant. Amy shocks only her mother, and maybe herself.
AMY AND ISABELLE opens at the beginning of a long, hot, dry summer in the small mill town of Shirley Falls --- a town that seems one step away from crumbling into dust. The river is "just a dead brown snake of a thing," the sky is a constant hazy gray, and the people are wilting. Especially the women in the mill where Amy and Isabelle work. Joined together by an invisible black cord, Amy and Isabelle work in the same hot stuffy room silently glaring at each other. They are always aware of one another and the circumstances that brought them to this point in their relationship.
Amy's shorn head --- the strange way her streaky blonde hair was cut off below the ears --- puzzles the women in the mill. Her coworker, Fat Bev wonders why she cut it like that and why she rarely speaks or smiles. The tension between mother and daughter grows as the summer goes on, but the real climax has already occurred, before the summer even began.
When Isabelle moved with her infant daughter to Shirley Falls, she had high hopes of starting over. She even rented --- never bought, no need to grow any roots --- a little cottage on the "right" side of town and got a job at the local mill. But she never lets herself get close to anyone or vice versa. Isolated in their small house, Amy grows up in a veil of secrets and silence. Her mother does not tell her about her father, only that he no longer exists. To 16-year-old Amy, her mother is a mystery. Why doesn't she have any friends? Why is she in love with her middle-aged unattractive married boss? All of these questions remain unanswered and begin to fester within Amy.
When Mr. Robertson comes to teach math at her school after the winter break, Amy's life is turned upside down. Before he arrived, Amy hated going to school. But something deep within her moves the day he arrives and she knows somehow that things will be different. Beginning with innocence and ending with betrayal, the relationship between Amy and Mr. Robertson can only have a tragic ending --- everyone knows this but Amy. When it ends --- abruptly and with embarrassment --- her mother's reaction is shocking.
The summer without Mr. Robertson is long and strained --- Amy and Isabelle's relationship is put to the test. Long days at the mill are filled with the constant chatter and bickering of the other women. Isabelle remains aloof and distant, and Amy is quiet and attentive. UFO sightings, a missing girl, Fat Bev's digestive track updates, marriages, children, themselves and more. Amy and Isabelle are unwittingly drawn into these women's lives and it changes both of them. As the summer comes to a close, certain truths are revealed that alter the course of Amy and Isabelle's existence.
With eloquence and depth, author Elizabeth Strout tells the story of not only a mother and daughter, but an entire town. Poignant moments are intertwined with comic occurrences, and by the end of the book you are left with memories of the characters that almost feel real.
Reviewed by Dana Schwartz on February 1, 2000
Amy and Isabelle