… This must be the way most of us manourver through the world, half knowing, half not, visited by memories that can’t possibly be true. But when I see others walking with confidence down the sidewalk, as though they are free completely from terror, I realize I don’t know how others are. So much of life seems speculation.
I fell in love Elizabeth Strout’s fiction when my old book club read her Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge (2008). Strout has several other books, including Amy and Isabelle (1998), Abide With Me (2007) and The Burgess Boys (2013) and is a highly-regarded short story writer.
Her latest novel, My Name is Lucy Barton (Random House, Jan 2016) is a story about identity, family and trauma. Protagonist and short story writer, Lucy Barton, reflects on the time in the mid-1980s when she was hospitalised for nine weeks following complications with an appendectomy: ‘No one could isolate any bacteria or figure out what had gone wrong. No one ever did.’ Her mother, with whom she hasn’t spoken for many years, spends five days with Lucy in the hospital. During her stay, she talks to her daughter ‘in a way I didn’t remember, as though a pressure of feeling and words and observations had been stuffed down inside her for years, and her voice was breathy and unselfconscious.’ The unfamiliar setting allows mother and daughter to connect on a new level:
Maybe it was the darkness with only the pale crack of light that came through the door, the constellation of the magnificent Chrysler Building right beyond us, that allowed us to speak in ways we never had.
Throughout, Lucy also discusses her two young daughters, her (then) fledgling writing career and her marriage, which is already showing signs of wear. She shares stories about her life in New York—which is impossibly distant from her childhood in Amgash, Illiois—and about her neighbours and a writer she meets by chance one afternoon in a clothing store and attends workshops with years later. But mostly, Lucy talks about her childhood.
Lucy grows up in a poor and unhappy home:
Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.
Her father, who suffers severe PTSD, cannot hold down a job and she, her older brother and sister are marginalised both at school and in the town:
We were oddities, our family, even in that tiny rural town of Amgash, Illinois, where there were other homes that were run-down and lacking fresh paint or shutters or gardens, no beauty for the eye to rest upon.
Until I was eleven years old, we lived in a garage. The garage belonged to my great-uncle who lived in the house next door, and in the garage there was only a trickle of cold water from a makeshift sink.
When my great-uncle died, we moved into the house and we had hot water and a flush toilet, though in the winter the house was very cold. There are elements that determine paths taken, and we can seldom find them or point to them accurately, but I have sometimes thought how I would stay late at school, where it was warm, just to be warm. … I remained alone in the classroom, warm, and that was when I learned that work gets done if you simply do it.
But there’s a disconnect between Lucy’s recollections and the stories her mother tells, with Strout examining the way we remember and misremember and the stories we necessarily construct in order to cope. But also how our grown-up selves are shaped by our formative experiences. Lucy is particularly aware that her upbringing has left her unprepared for her life first at college and later in New York:
How, for example, do you learn that it is impolite to ask a couple why they have no children? How do you set a table? How do you know if you are chewing with your mouth open if no one has ever told you? How do you even know what you look like if the only mirror in the house is a tiny one high above the kitchen sink, or if you have never heard a living soul say that you are pretty, but rather, as your breasts develop, are told by your mother that you are starting to look like one of the cows in the Pederson’s barn?
Lucy’s hospital stay finds her at a crossroads. She is a mother, but still desires to be mothered and struggles to reconcile that the relationship she wants with her mother is not one her mother is capable of having. She wants to talk with her mother about the trauma she experienced as a child, but her mother won’t allow the conversation. She’s moved away from her hometown, but still feels defined by the years she spent there. Her life and career in New York are taking off, but she’s afraid to embrace fully what the city has to offer, does not think she deserves it. And throughout her nine-week stay in the hospital, the Chrysler Building stands tall and glittering beyond her window, a symbol of self-assuredness and dreams not yet realised:
The light from the Chrysler Building shone like the beacon it was, of the largest and best hopes for mankind and its aspirations and desire for beauty.
You’ll notice I can’t stop quoting Strout. Her prose is so precise, so charged with subtle and nuanced feeling. I must have highlighted half the book as I was reading, afraid of losing the words. Her chapters are brief and self-contained, each reading almost like a short story, but also flowing seamlessly from one to the next. At 208 pages, it’s a slim but dense read. The kind of book that invites the reader to linger over sentences—to curl up with somewhere where you won’t be interrupted.
I made a note towards the end: ‘This book breaks my heart in quiet ways.’ And a week later, that’s still the best way I can describe how I feel about it. But there’s hope in there too. My Name is Lucy Barton is an elegant portrait of a woman captured in a state of transition.
Thank you to Random House for providing a copy of My Name is Lucy Barton in exchange for an honest review.
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