She’s particularly adept at subverting our prejudices, complicating our easy judgments of people we think we know. Jim’s wife, for instance, is a wealthy Manhattanite whose days would seem to involve nothing more strenuous than managing the household staff and selecting the right theater tickets. But in Strout’s humane portrayal, we come to appreciate the real loneliness of this brittle woman who has stood by her obnoxious husband for decades, raised their children and sent them off into the world, leaving herself “in a velvet coffin,” with nothing to do but maintain her shiny facade against the onset of irritability and pettiness.
And Strout unpacks our racial stereotypes, too, filling in the full spectrum of expectations and misunderstandings that are so often obscured in the brash primary colors of the news: violent racists on one side, sophisticated liberals on the other. Afraid of these aloof, strangely dressed Africans and ashamed for feeling that way, Susan is a particularly fraught character to present in our enlightened times, but Strout never makes her a figure of ridicule or satire. Even Susan’s fragile son, the young vandal who desecrates the mosque on a foolish whim, enjoys the benefit of the author’s tender understanding. It’s not that she creates a world without hatred or cruelty — and she certainly doesn’t exonerate everyone — but she forces us to acknowledge that blame and judgment should be apportioned with care and reluctance.