December 21, 2015 2:27 PM EST

The title protagonist in Elizabeth Strout’s fifth novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton, gets a piece of advice from her writing teacher: “You will have only one story. You’ll write your one story many ways.” Strout has followed that maxim herself; her story is one of parents, children and the shame that passes between generations. And she’s been telling it in beautiful ways since her 1998 debut, Amy and Isabelle.

Strout’s most recent novel was The Burgess Boys in 2013–a tale of hostility toward immigrants, more relevant now than ever–but her 2009 Pulitzer winner Olive Kitteridge has enjoyed renewed attention thanks to HBO’s miniseries adaptation, which scored three Golden Globe nods and eight Emmys this year, including Outstanding Lead Actress for Frances McDormand (who declared in an acceptance speech, “It started as a book”). Lucy Barton will kick off Strout’s year with a January release.

Most of the book takes place in a Manhattan hospital room, where Lucy, a young mother, is suffering from an infection. She has few visits from her husband and daughters; instead, her estranged mother shows up. The vulnerable Lucy takes comfort in the visits, but their newfound bond is clouded by some dark event that took place during Lucy’s impoverished childhood.

Lucy Barton is more restrained in plot than Strout’s previous books, but it’s potent with distilled emotion. Without a hint of self-pity, Strout captures the ache of loneliness we all feel sometimes, “with longings so large you can’t even weep.”

This appears in the December 28, 2015 issue of TIME.

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