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.