When 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.