Our Secret Selves: Characterization in Amy and Isabelle

by Kate Gorton
Elizabeth Strout’s novel Amy and Isabelle depicts a mother and daughter’s dependence on and connection to one another. The narrative hinges on interior and exterior character dynamics, and Strout brings her protagonists and minor characters to life through a variety of techniques. While her more conventional methods bring depth and dimension to each person, it is Strout’s less-obvious means of characterization that render them in flesh and bone. Strout weaves a secret into each personality; a shadowy past or a life just beneath the surface that runs parallel to the character’s public life. In this way, Strout achieves well-realized, multifaceted characters that drive the narrative forward to its inevitable conclusion.
The story begins with Isabelle’s point of view: a single mother raising her daughter, Amy. Strout infuses Isabelle’s personality into the narrative voice. She brings artful moments of craft to her characters when they are alone for long stretches of time. Isabelle’s voice, for instance, is clear, without a need for any dialogue. As Isabelle reads Hamlet, she reaches a scene that bothers her, and the reader gets a full passage in a voice that could only belong to her:

But that line “Frailty, thy name is woman!” She didn’t like that particularly; and he was talking to his mother. For heaven’s sake…Hamlet was pretty offensive there, frankly…Honestly, it did rile her a bit…For heaven’s sake, women had been keeping things going from time in memoriam. And there was nothing frail about her.

This kind of inner voice must be developed with a careful hand, however, so as not to overpower the sentiment of the passage. Strout combines Isabelle’s spoken speech pattern with the narrative flow, creating a delicate balance. She uses repetition—“for heaven’s sake”—to give the character dimension. On the surface, the repetition shows Isabelle’s irritation. One can also infer that this character is somewhat sheltered, if not repressed; the worst she can muster is “for heaven’s sake” upon reading what she considers a sexist, insensitive piece of literature. Strout uses this passage to develop Isabelle’s backstory and show there is fire inside of her, if only in the form of bitterness:

What did Hamlet know about being a single parent, losing the man you loved? Isabelle frowned and pushed at the cuticle of her thumb. Certainly those women down in Boston who had just burned their undergarments on the front steps of some court building…wouldn’t take very kindly to such a line.

Isabelle seems uneasy in her thoughts; she references the “women down in Boston” who would be offended by the passage but never implicates herself as a wounded party. This reluctance to own her emotions is also evident in her fidgety physical cues; she frowns and pushes at her cuticles. Through this dissociation and physicality, Strout reveals another layer of Isabelle and begins to build the character’s secret self. Is she uneasy about expressing negative thoughts towards men, or is there something she is not telling us, or, possibly, herself? In the passage above, Strout plumbs the manifestations of Isabelle’s personality that are unknown to the reader until that moment, and not understood by Isabelle herself. This interior duality opens a great opportunity for intense and meaningful character development.

Before Strout answers questions about Isabelle’s past, she first restores the reader’s sympathy and trust, through Isabelle’s admission of frailty and fatigue. She writes, “Isabelle had to close her eyes for just a moment; she was very tired. And, in fact, she did feel frail. That was the truth, if you really wanted to know it.” The prim and distant character is a mix of secret and contradiction; she is angry but frail, independent but tired. In this short section of prose, Strout endears Isabelle to the reader and piques the reader’s curiosity. The secret is not yet apparent, but the reader now cares enough about Isabelle to continue reading.

While Strout reveals some interior contradictions outright, there are others present in each of the main characters that the reader discovers over time, often parallel to the character’s own self-realization. For example, she creates Isabelle’s daughter Amy on two levels, others’ perceptions of her and Amy’s own thoughts and experiences. These two selves rarely intersect. When Amy begins her after-school tryst with Mr. Robertson, Isabelle never doubts her daughter’s word, confident she knows her daughter well:

And Amy, thank God (truly, thank Him), was more talkative than she used to be, much more interested in school. She…often stayed for a meeting in the afternoon. She was good about calling Isabelle at work when this was the case…This all seemed normal to Isabelle… And she was grateful for it, because Isabelle had worried that Amy was lonely at school. So now it was pleasant to be able to sit on these lovely spring evenings and listen to the chatter of this growing, happy girl.

The reader discovers that these after-school meetings are a cover for her taboo explorations with a teacher. Isabelle and others perceive Amy as a shy and naïve girl, yet she is in the middle of an intense sexual awakening that rocks her to the core. “She did not do much of anything except move restlessly about the house, thinking of [Mr. Robertson’s] deliberate kiss to her mouth. Isabelle felt her forehead to see if she was sick. . . It was hard, this whole business of lying to her mother.” Giving Amy this secret brings an authentically adolescent dimension to the character. It is incredible how much happens inside of Amy, while the change is almost imperceptible to others.

Isabelle comes full circle and faces the truth about her past only in the final moments of the novel. It may seem that this revelation comes a bit late in the story and that her idiosyncrasies up until this point have gone without any sort of resolution or suspense. However, it is clear that Isabelle has kept her secret self so well hidden that she, too, has forgotten the truth behind it—that is, until a neighbor reveals that he saw Amy in an intimate embrace with Mr. Robertson. Isabelle strikes out at Amy and cuts off her long, beautiful hair to make her unattractive to older men. Her rage toward Amy points to a deeper issue, an inner turbulence she has kept hidden for all of these years.

In the wake of their falling-out and with the weight of her daughter’s secret urging her on, Isabelle confesses to Amy; her father is alive. Contrary to what she has led others to believe, Amy is the child of her affair with a married man. Once she reveals her secret to Amy, the two grow closer together and become even more deeply linked. Isabelle becomes more three-dimensional: a complex person filled with secrets and contradictions. By making Isabelle so nuanced, Strout has made her more real; the reader can identify with her. Strout knows that a reader feels intimately connected with characters when privy to their mysteries. Strout deploys this device of a secret self so skillfully that her characters resonate with the reader long after the story ends. Her focus on interiority and unresolved secrets in Amy and Isabelle creates a well-crafted piece of fiction filled with believable characters.

Strout artfully explores the limits of characterization by tapping into the “blind” portions of Isabelle’s psyche and the consuming parallel universe that exists inside of Amy. Strout shows the reader that those contradictions and deep dark secrets can be the building blocks of successful character development. Amy and Isabelle serves as an instructional work for writers whose characters need greater complexity and depth.


OurSecretSelves-_Gorton_photo_lgeKate Gorton is a student in Fairfield University’s MFA in Creative Writing Program, where she is working on a full-length novel. When not in residency on Enders Island, she lives and works in the strange little state of Rhode Island. This is her first published work.

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