My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

lucy bartonWhen a blogger I respect says a book is “perfect” my antennae begin to twitch. When I then see similar positive reviews by a string of other bloggers, it goes into overdrive. Elizabeth Strout is an author I’ve ignored until now somehow having got it into my head that her work wasn’t ‘deep’ enough for my taste. But Alex at Thinking in Fragments doesn’t do ‘light’ so when she said Strout’s newest novel My Name is Lucy Barton was the best book she’d read all year, it was clear the time had come to cast away my misconceptions.

Appropriately I started reading this exploration of a mother/daughter relationship on the day when the UK celebrates motherhood in the form of  Mothering Sunday. Motherhood is a subject that can so easily descend into predictability or saccharin laden prose.  Strout avoids these pitfalls to give us a thoughtful  and moving examination of a relationship in which the two parties love each other deeply yet cannot bring themselves to say so.

It’s a story told by Lucy Barton as a recollection of the time when she was in hospital for complications after her appendectomy. Separated from her husband and two young daughters she misses them desperately. Unexpectedly, her mother, whom she has not seen for years, turns up at her bedside and hardly leaves it for five days. In between Lucy’s bouts of feverish sleep and regular stream of visits from medical practioners, the two women talk. Mostly they gossip about friends and relatives from her childhood in a rural town in Illinois; a litany of stories about  failed marriages and emotional breakdowns.

Her mother’s presence re-ignites painful memories of the desperate poverty of Lucy’s childhood; living with her parents, sister and brother in an unheated garage down a long direct track with nothing in sight except for cornfields. “We were oddities, our family, even in that tiny rural town …” explains Lucy, going on matter-of- factly to relate how other children shunned her and her siblings because they were dirty and smelly.  That sense of loneliness has remained with her throughout her life.

“Loneliness was the first flavour I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden in the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.” It is this loneliness, and lack of love and affection from her parents, that prompted her to become a writer: “Books made me feel less alone… I thought: I will write and people will not feel so alone!”  Despite all this, the adult Lucy doesn’t exhibit any signs of bitterness. Instead, in her mother’s presence at her bedside and the way her mother calls her by her old pet name she finds consolation: “It was the sound of my mother’s voice I most wanted; what she said didn’t matter.”

It’s what these two women don’t say that shows us the emotional truth of their relationship.  They skirt carefully around episodes when her father became very anxious and ‘not in control of himself”; or the times when Lucy was locked in her father’s truck (once terrified to find she was sharing the space with a snake). There’s no discussion about her brother who has remained living with his parents, reading children’s books and sleeping next to pigs in the barn. More significantly over the course of all those hours together, her mother never once asks her about her life now in New York, her children and husband or her success as an author.

There are many moments in this novel where Lucy’s attempts to make peace with  her mother’s lack of interest mask the reality of the ache she feels deep down. At one point , Lucy explains: “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.”  And yet she tries to get her mother to utter those very words, turning it into a game that it’s clear they have played many times before:

I sat up and, like a child, clapped my hands. ‘Mom! Do you love me, do you love me, do you love me?’

‘Lucy, you stop it now.” I heard the mirth in her voice.

‘Come on, Mom. My eyes are closed.’

‘When your eyes are closed,’ she said.

‘You love me when my eyes are closed?’

‘When your eyes are closed,’ she said. And we stopped the game, but I was so happy..

It’s a small scene but one of many where in just a few words Strout shows how complicated and complex the relationship can be between a mother and her offspring. Light? It’s anything but. Worth reading? Unequivocally so.  An award winner? Highly likely if the judges have any sense.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on March 22, 2016, in American authors, Book Reviews and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 39 Comments.

  1. I read Lucy Barton recently and had a very emotional reaction to it. It’s the kind of book where you want to hate the mother but you quietly start to understand her and can’t quite manage to find yourself blaming her for what she does. Strout writes complex women really well. You should read Olive Kitteridge, if you haven’t read it since writing this review.

    • I haven’t got around to Olive Kitteridge yet – mean to do so one day though. But I’d agree with you on reactions to the mother in Lucy Barton

  2. Great review, Karen. I enjoyed this book – such a quick read. Her writing is elegant in its simplicity and the subject so complex.

  3. Another blogger I follow reviewed this recently and also had a very high opinion of it. For some reason–on an off-glance opinion–I thought it was more light weight and romancey.

  4. I have to get myself on the list for this at the library. It seems like everyone who reads it loves it.

  5. I’m really looking forward to this one – especially since I loved Olive Kitteridge so much! Nice review!

  6. I haven’t read her but I saw the HBO version of Olive Kitteridge with the great Frances McDormand and thought that was stunning so I must get round to reading her. In Olive Kitteridge I really admired how complex and in some ways unpleasant the main character was.

  7. Like you, I’d written this off as a light read, but you’ve convinced me to give it a try. It certainly has more depth and sounds far more complex than I’d expected from a glance at the cover!

  8. Delighted to hear that you’ve come around to Elizabeth Strout. She’s mistress of the elegant understatement and has been done a disservice for years in the UK with misleading saccharine jackets. This one fits the book beautifully.

    • Totally agree that book jackets have misrepresented Strout in the past.

      I’m always fascinated by the way very different jackets are designed for the UK, US and Australian markets.

      • Yes, it’s odd isn’t it. As an ex-bookseller it makes me want to tear my hair out when I see a brilliant author let down by a horribly misleading jacket. That’s how you snag a reader’s attention, after all.

    • you’ve just put your finger on one reason I avoided her – the covers! i’m going over to USA next month so will do a scout in the bookshops to see how the US editions are presented

  9. On the birthday list!

  10. Sounds like an excellent novel. The Guardian ran an interesting interview with Strout a couple of weeks ago – there’s a link here in case you missed it and are interested.

    • Bless you for sharing that interview Jacqui. I don’t buy The Guardian regularly and can’t seem to get their blog feed to work consistently. Hence I missed this piece. The comment by Claire Messud of Strout’s writing in Lucy Barton seemed perfectly to sum up the book “careful words and vibrating silences”.

  11. Great review. I’m trying to go easier on prize lists this year, but it looks like Lucy Barton is a must read!

  12. I recently read Olive Kitteridge for my Reading New England challenge and enjoyed it very much. I’m not usually fond of books of short stories, even linked stories, so I might like a novel by Strout even better.

  13. I thought it was very powerful, but didn’t love it as I have loved her other books. Maybe it was just too sad for me at this time in my life. Even Lucy’s feeling happy made me sad, because love was missing from so much of her life and she even missed out on being able to mother her own children.

    • I can understand your reaction Laurie. the way Strout introduced the idea that Lucy’s relationship with her own children is problematic, was clever I thought

      • I felt so bad for her that she found happiness under circumstances that she wouldn’t have even had to face on the very worst days in a less dysfunctional family!

  14. Great review. I also loved this book and, like you, thought the skill was in what Strout didn’t say, leaving the reader to fill in the gaps (although you were expertly lead to those gaps!).

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