My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (2016) Random House (2016) 193 pp
While reading the book, I was impressed by Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer-winning novel Olive Kitteridge, and, in a similar fashion, I was impressed while reading her latest, recently longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, My Name Is Lucy Barton. Strangely, though, in each case, when I put down the book, I find little to latch onto, little that latches on to me. Perhaps its that the books are composed of various vignettes intended, eventually, to create a full portrait, and that portrait never quite came together for me. This suggests something well written, low key, though perhaps too subtle for my temperament. But I wanted to write this review from the perspective I have when I’m in the middle of the story, enjoying Strout’s conveyance of soft loneliness.
The Lucy Barton who is telling us this story is a writer more or less in the present day. The story she is telling takes us back to Manhattan in the 1980s when Lucy Barton is in a hospital recovering from what was supposed to be a routine, in-and-out surgery. Instead, for weeks this young mother is confined to a room with a view of the Chrysler Building, rooftop shiny or dull depending on the time of day and the weather. Her husband mostly gives in to his aversion to hospitals and rarely visits for long. Instead, he calls Lucy’s estranged mother and invites her to reconcile with her daughter and visit her while she recovers. To Lucy’s surprise, her mother shows up, and the two of them sit uncomfortably — though with a great desire to be with one another — in that little room for five days, and talk circlingly about a past that has, up to that point, been unsayable.
Lucy grew up poor and partially neglected. She was lonely, seeking friends in books, and she determined she’d be a writer so she could always have friends around her. When she marries she fully distances herself from this past, though it pulls at her. Like many of Alice Munro’s women, she has found herself living a life in which she feels she’s an imposter who has repudiated a more real version of herself.
While Lucy has several important relationships — with her husband, with a kindly doctor (perhaps radically transformed by Lucy’s yearning desire for kindness from an ordinary man doing his job into a fantastic knight in shining armor on the page) — the relationship at the center is with her mother. Strout’s nuance, which, for my temperament, may count against the book after I set it down, serves this complex relationship beautifully when I’m tuned in. Lucy loves her mother, though she’s left her behind. Part of this is a daughter’s love for the woman who cared for her, no matter how shoddy the job. But part is also a desire to return the favor and give care back: her mother needed it.
And so I wonder: in a modest way, my experience with this lonely, pain-filled but still strangely comforting book, is in some ways like Lucy’s with her own past. For the most part, as you move away from it you can overlook the details, and then the events do not stand out as anything important or particularly meaningful. But if you sit down in a sleepy room with the afternoon light slipping in and let the emotion engulf you, it is, on the contrary, filled with feeling. It was delightful to go back through the book before writing this review and find that it was I who slipped away from meaning when I left the book, but the book remained powerful and ready to convey pain, sorrow, and joy.