Excerpt from Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Amy and Isabelle

By Elizabeth Strout

Amy and Isabelle
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  • Hardcover: Jan 1999,
    304 pages.
    Paperback: Feb 2000,
    304 pages.

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But there was one period of time when Amy would do nothing except sit in a chair, and Esther Hatch complained that it gave her the willies, that if Amy couldn't get up and run around like a normal child she wasn't sure she could keep taking her in. This made Isabelle panic. She bought Amy a doll at Woolworth's, a plastic thing with springy, coarse platinum hair. The head fell off right away, but Amy seemed to love it. Not the doll so much as the head of the doll. She carried the head everywhere she went, and colored the plastic lips red. And apparently she stopped confining herself to a chair at Esther Hatch's house, because the woman did not complain to Isabelle again.

But it was clear, then, why Isabelle would sit with the girl each night at their table in the kitchen. "Sing Itty Bitty Spider?" Amy might ask sweetly, squeezing a lima bean between her small fingers. And Isabelle-it was horrible-would say no. She would say no, she was too tired. But Amy was such a sweet little thing-she was so happy to have her mother right there, a mere arm's length across the table. Her legs would swing with happiness, her small wet mouth open in a smile, tiny teeth like white pebbles set in her pink gums.

Isabelle closed her eyes, a familiar ache beginning in the center of her breastbone. But she had sat there, hadn't she? She had done that.
"Please," she said now, opening her eyes. "You may be excused." Amy got up and left the room.

The curtain moved again. This was a good sign, if Isabelle had been able to think about it that way, the evening air moving enough to move the curtain, a breeze strong enough to ripple the curtain lightly, holding itself out from the sill for a moment as though it were the
dress of a pregnant woman, and then, just as quickly, silently falling back in its place, a few of its folds touching the screen. But Isabelle did not think that at least there was a breeze. She thought instead that the curtains needed to be washed, that they had not been washed in quite some time.

Casting her eye about the kitchen, she was glad to see that at least the faucets shone, and the counters did not seem streaky, as they sometimes did, with the dried remains of cleanser. And there was the Belleek china creamer that had belonged to her mother, the delicate, shell-like, shimmering thing. Amy was the one who had brought it down from the cupboard a few months before and suggested they use it each night. "It was your mother's," Amy said, "and you like it so much." Isabelle had said all right. But now, suddenly, it seemed dangerous; a thing so easily to be swept by a sleeve, a bare arm, and smashed to bits on the floor.

Isabelle rose and wrapped the leftover part of her hamburger in wax paper and put it in the refrigerator. She washed the plates, red-stained water from the beets swirling into the white sink. Only when the dishes were done and put away did she wash the Belleek china creamer. She washed it carefully, and dried it carefully, then put it far back in the cupboard, where it couldn't be seen.

She heard Amy come out of her bedroom and move to the top of the stairs. Just as Isabelle was about to say that she didn't want the Belleek creamer used anymore, that it was too special a thing and too apt to get broken, Amy called down the stairs, "Mom, Stacy's pregnant. I just wanted you to know."

Excerpted from Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout. Copyright© 1999 by Elizabeth Strout. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission.

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