Sunday, January 3, 2016

My Name Is Lucy Barton

My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
Random House: 1/12/16
eBook review copy; 208 pages
hardcover ISBN-13: 9781400067695

My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout is a very highly recommended, heart breaking and exquisitely written, restrained book about mother-daughter relationships. For its diminutive size, it provides a substantial emotional impact.

Lucy Barton is in the hospital in NYC recovering for nine weeks due to complications after what should have been a simple appendix removal. Her husband has an aversion to hospitals and doesn't visit as often as he should with their two daughters. He sends a neighbor in with the girls instead. What he does do is call Lucy's estranged mother and pays for her to fly from rural Amgash, Illinois, to sit with Lucy in the hospital. She stays for a week.

Lucy hasn't spoken to her mother in years. Her dysfunctional childhood was one of extreme poverty, harsh treatment, and social isolation. Her family lived in a garage until she was eleven. Her family was the one who smelled funny. They were teased and avoided. Also, just below the surface, we know that her childhood was filled with even more trauma than she gives voice to and that her mother did not protect her children from the actions of their WWII traumatized father or the people around them. Once Lucy was able to escape and attend college, she came to realize just how emotionally and socially isolated and stunted her childhood was.

Lucy's mother declines the cot the hospital staff offered to bring in to the room. She claims she sleeps in cat naps - that she learned as a child you can sleep sitting up when you don't feel safe. She refuses to talk about anything personal. She will not talk about their past or acknowledge any comments about it. She doesn't ask about her granddaughters and seemingly doesn't want to know anything about them or Lucy's life in NYC. Instead her mother causally tells the stories of others from Amgash that Lucy knows. Lucy's mother cannot say, "I love you" to her daughter, who she calls by her childhood pet name, "Wizzle."

Now a writer, Lucy embraces the comment she learns from another writer who reminded her that "...we never know, and never would know, what it would be like to understand another person fully." Clearly, Lucy does not understand her mother, nor does her mother show any desire to understand her. Comparatively, Lucy is much more caring and demonstrative to her daughters, but realizes that she will never understand their reality either.

What My Name Is Lucy Barton captures in short chapters is a woman reflecting on her life. What is shared and revealed is not a chronological, linear biography. It is much more indicative of a person's inner thoughts and reflections, where thoughts jump around from year to year and transcend a timeline. Connections can be made across the years. Somethings are left unsaid, but lurk just around an avoided dark corner.

The writing is pitch perfect and captures exquisitely subtle and poignant longings and wounds that are left unsaid and unacknowledged. The character development of Lucy is amazingly accomplished. This would be an excellent selection for a serious book club discussion because the writing is stunning. There is so much depth to Lucy and, clearly, pain just below the surface.   She is wounded from her childhood, but Lucy is a survivor; she has chosen to embrace acceptance and affirm what is good. 

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Random House via Netgalley for review purposes.

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