Known for her blockbuster hit Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout’s new novel, My Name is Lucy Barton (January 2016), a slender volume of 191 pages, is a playbook for compression and concision. It’s full of perfect sentences and wise observations, the work of a brilliant novelist attempting to probe beneath the places where mere language usually takes us, into the wordless heart of a mother-daughter bond.
Its eponymous narrator recounts a time ‘many years ago’ when she was hospitalized for nine weeks as the result of a post-appendectomy infection. From her bed, she can see the lights of the Chrysler Building in Manhattan, its proximity an emblem of how far she’s traveled from her childhood in Amgash, Illinois. For there, she grew up poor in a garage with neither indoor plumbing nor central heat. From time to time her father terrorized and humiliated his children, often locking Lucy in his pickup truck for hours, once with a long brown snake, resulting in her life-long phobia. Her mother – who calls it, “that silly fear of yours (50)” – struck her often “impulsively and vigorously (12).”
But now Lucy’s ill and her mother’s here, at the foot of her hospital bed, for five days, and Lucy luxuriates in the sound of her mother’s voice, thinking, “All I want is this (55).”
Lucy’s mother has been summoned by Lucy’s husband William, who’s at home with their two little girls. He pays for her trip but does not see her. This will be the mother’s first and only visit to her daughter, a brief interlude of intimacy in the mother’s difficult life, their “unhealthy family (167).”
The women talk and talk, reconnecting through recollections of other women they’ve known and their bad marriages, their sad but predictable downfalls. But what they talk about is far less important than the fact of their talking, of the mother tenderly calling Lucy, Weezle or Weezle-dee; squeezing her foot through the sheet, the closest she ever gets.
During these quiet days in the hospital, her mother at the foot of her bed, Lucy recalls vivid bits and pieces of her past, but what’s most important is that her mother is there, sitting in a chair, round-the-clock, catching only cat naps. Lucy and her nurses urge the mother to accept a cot, or a recliner, but she refuses, saying you can learn to sleep sitting up “when you don’t feel safe (47).”
It’s clear that Lucy has transcended her dire beginnings, though her damaged siblings, a brother and a sister, remain trapped in Amgash. Through her intelligence and academic diligence, she has gone off to university; married a smart young academic who wins a post-doctoral appointment in New York City. Her husband, who will come into a large inheritance, supports her until she becomes a best-selling novelist and leaves him. But it’s the mother-daughter story that marks the beginning of Lucy’s success as an author.
And it’s at this juncture that the novel begins to fail me despite the gorgeous writing. Because I don’t understand how Lucy comes unscathed out of such emotional penury and violence; how she escapes her parents and siblings whose “roots were twisted so tenaciously around one another’s hearts (168).”
I don’t understand this grandmother who never sees or asks about her grandchildren, who has no interest whatsoever in Lucy’s life, who did nothing to protect her children when they were growing up and does nothing to make her own life better. I don’t understand the multiple estrangements that are more common than their relationships. The Bartons are a family beyond the reach of my understanding and maybe, too, my empathy.
So it’s all the more puzzling, to me, that Lucy becomes a successful author. She tells us she makes money from her books, but this wondrous feat occurs off the pages of the novel. Yes, her friend Jeremy tells her she must be ruthless to become a writer. And she finds a teacher Sarah Payne, who offers brief but stringent lessons on the art and craft of writing. But it strains belief that these meager experiences enable Lucy, through her writing, to go “to places in this city where the very wealthy go (129).” She and her daughters find a second home at Bloomingdales! Lucy goes to a plastic surgeon so she won’t end up “looking like my mother (129)” as she ages.
But how did Lucy get over the emotional penury and violence of her first family? How did she escape the trauma and humiliations that ruined the lives of her siblings? And how, in God’s name, did she manage to make money from her writing? Readers are expected to take on faith that these things happened but, realistically, the intimate mother-daughter story she relates, as a first novel, would most likely be published, if at all, for no advance by an indie press.
My Name is Lucy Barton is as cut and polished as a precious gem. It’s a fast read, an easy read, but it’s also shiny, cold and ultimately, despite the beautiful writing, unconvincing. If you are already a Strout fan, you must, of course, read it. But if you aren’t yet familiar with her work, start with one of her other books, perhaps her radiant first novel, Amy and Isabelle. It also explores the mother-daughter bond, and is, for me, a richer and far more resonant read.
Reviewed by Julia MacDonnell
Check out our Book Addict Inspirations on Pinterest!