Title: My Name is Lucy Barton
Author: Elizabeth Strout
Published: March 2017
Pages: 208 Pages
Genre: Literary Fiction
Rating: Five Stars
About the book
Lucy is recovering from an operation in a New York hospital when she wakes to find her estranged mother sitting by her bed. They have not seen one another in years. As they talk Lucy finds herself recalling her troubled rural childhood and how it was she eventually arrived in the big city, got married and had children. But this unexpected visit leaves her doubting the life she’s made: wondering what is lost and what has yet to be found.
Firstly, there are four unavoidably clear assertions in Lucy’s story that I feel she doesn’t want the reader to forget:
- Lucy’s writing mentor tells her: To always stand by your work, do not defend.
- Lucy’s suggestion that you can never really know a person; know how and what they truly think.
- Her suggestion that we should make no hard and fast judgments about anyone.
- That this is Lucy’s take on life so far. This is her perception.
Told in the first person, the unique, almost child-like voice of Lucy Barton with her flashbacks tightly interwoven into the present gives it an almost stream of consciousness, dream-like quality, but there is nothing ‘stream of consciousness’ about this book. All the glass bricks used in building this literary prism have been laid down extremely carefully; each word had to perform. There is a reason why the sentences feel smooth, staccato and naive at the same time; they reflect, I feel, the conflicted, awkward and contrary nature of her relationship with her mother and her family and reflect some behavioural patterns in families in general. Some of us carry on in life with things left unsaid, talking but perhaps meta communicating. The by-product is often some kind of tension. The reader has to read between the lines and understand what is not being said which is the root of where the real issues lie. There is a really striking piece where Lucy asks her mother whether she loves her. The response is powerfully overwhelming in an underwhelming way. Dare I say it has some Hemingway-esque qualities?
To be honest, anyone who has experienced living or being placed on the margins, on the ‘outside’, wouldn’t blink at the way Lucy hints she was treated as a child, and as a child in a poor family unit. It is not good. It may shock the terribly fortunate and the very comfortable. Hints of abuse are there but if you were to read the National papers which can contain clear and graphic details on some cases of child neglect, or if you were/ are poor, fat, red-haired, a child of colour or different ethnicity, if you wore the ‘wrong’ glasses, have an impediment of some kind, didn’t dress the same as the ‘cool’ children, were shy, have a stammer, were extremely bright or extremely not bright… maybe I’m just insensitive, but I don’t think you’d blink about her experiences of being shunned.
It is quirky and the voice is refreshing. There is no tying up of things at the end nicely. Good. Though it does end with a hauntingly beautiful nano snapshot image in her childhood that leaves you yearning. For what? Lost innocence? Overall, I am left feeling empty and bereft, drawing me to dust cobwebs away from a comparable moment wistfully remembered from my own childhood. Sure to make you feel sad.
The book resurfaced in a dream I had, so it clearly had an impact on me. You, reader, are to make of it what you will, but I feel she wants you to remember 1, 2, 3 and 4.
I can visualise the novel with ease, being discussed and studied as an excellent example of seemingly harmless yet hazardous family manners perpetuating unhealthy relationships.
If you’d like to read more about Elizabeth Strout and her books, please click on the links below: