Monday, December 28, 2015

My Name Is Lucy Barton

Elizabeth Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton may not be the thickest novel you read in 2016, but it is a novel whose deceivingly simple plot and characters are likely to stick in your mind for many months to come.  This is especially true of Lucy Barton and her mother, two women whose relationship can best be characterized even on its best day as “frosty.”  When faced with a rare opportunity finally to reconcile their differences, these two are as likely to make things worse as they are to make them better.

This is very much Lucy Barton’s story and she tells it in her own words and at her own pace.  Growing up Lucy Barton was not an easy thing to do.  The Bartons were among the poorest of families in little Amgash, Illinois, and everyone knew it – and worse, everyone treated them accordingly.  Lucy, the Barton who escaped Amgash, now lives in New York City with a family of her own. 

Author Elizabeth Strout
Confined to a hospital bed for what to her seems like forever, Lucy is battling a postsurgical infection that refuses to succumb to treatment.  She misses her two daughters terribly and only sees her husband during sporadic, short visits.  But lonely as she is, when she wakes up one day to see her long-estranged mother sitting at the foot of her bed, Lucy hardly knows how to react – or what to say.  All they seem to have in common, really, is a shared memory of the townspeople back in Illinois, and both women find it easier to limit conversation to that safe topic rather than to risk an exploration of what went wrong between them.  Try as she might to break through her mother’s emotional walls, Lucy knows the likelihood of doing so is not high.  

Two of the saddest narrative reflections imaginable say it all:

            “I feel that people may not understand that my mother could never say the words I love you.  I feel that people may not understand: it was all right.”


            “I have no idea if she kissed me goodbye, but I cannot think she would have.  I have no memory of my mother ever kissing me.  She may have kissed me though; I may be wrong.”

Layer by layer, Elizabeth Strout has constructed a haunting novel peopled by what are destined to be two of 2016’s most memorable fictional characters.  My Name Is Lucy Barton is a beautiful book.

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