Title: My Name is Lucy Barton
Author: Elizabeth Strout
Publisher: Random House
Summary (from inside flap): A new book by Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout is cause for celebration. Her bestselling novels, brilliantly told, profoundly affecting, have illuminated our most tender relationships. Now, in My Name is Lucy Barton, this extraordinary writer shows how a simple hospital visit becomes a portal to the most tender relationship of all – the one between mother and daughter. Lucy Barton is recovering slowly from what should have been a simple operation. Her mother, to whom she hasn’t spoken for many years, comes to see her. Gentle gossip about people from Lucy’s childhood in Amgash, Illinois, seems to reconnect them, but just below the surface lie the tension and longing that have informed every aspect of Lucy’s life: her troubled family, her desire to become a writer, her marriage, her love for her two daughters. Knitting this powerful narrative together is the brilliant storytelling voice of Lucy herself: keenly observant, deeply human, and truly unforgettable.
“This is a story about love, you know that. This is a story of a man who has been tortured every day of his life for things he did in the war. This is the story of a wife who stayed with him, because most wives did in that generation, and she comes to her daughter’s hospital room and talks compulsively about everyone’s marriage going bad, she doesn’t even know it, doesn’t even know that’s what she’s doing. This is a story about a mother who loves her daughter. Imperfectly. Because we all love imperfectly.”
As I mentioned in my last blog post, I am currently trying to read my way through the Man Booker long list for 2016. After finishing The North Water by Ian McGuire, which was extremely intense and rather disturbing, I wanted something a bit less taxing. The portrayal of a young woman’s relationship with her mother promised in the summary of Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton sounded like just the book, so that is what I chose as my second Man Booker read.
Our narrator, Lucy Barton, is a young woman and mother of two who goes into the hospital to have her appendix removed and ends up being admitted for almost nine weeks due to some unspecified complications. At the request of her husband, William (who hates hospitals), Lucy’s mother flies in from Illinois to stay with her daughter in the hospital, and My Name is Lucy Barton primarily revolves around the five days that Lucy’s mother spends with her. Intertwined with the story of Lucy’s stay in the hospital are a series of vignettes about, among other things, her childhood, her friends, her family, and her time at a writing retreat. These various different stories seem oddly disconnected until the end of the novel, when readers realize that these stories, these memories, have made Lucy who she is as a person. Isn’t this true of all people? Our lives seem to consist of a string of disconnected events, and it isn’t until we are much older that we realize that these events have shaped who we are as individuals (but I’m getting off topic, let’s return to the book).
Lucy and her siblings had quite a troubled childhood growing up in Amgash, Illinois (extreme poverty, abuse, loneliness), the aftermath of which Lucy is still attempting to come to terms with much later in her adult life. For example, growing up Lucy’s family didn’t have heating, and so, even later on when she had her own family and house with central heating, she absolutely hates the idea of anyone being cold:
“But people who are cold! This I cannot stand! I read an article in the newspaper about an elderly couple in the Bronx who could not pay their heating bills, and they sat in their kitchen with the oven on. Every year I have given money so that people won’t be cold.”
Growing up, Lucy would often stay late at school and do her homework primarily because it was warm in the school. When she had finished her homework, in order to prolong the time she could spend in the warm, she would read anything and everything she could get her hands on. In third grade she read a book about a young girl named Tilly, a book that changed her so profoundly that she knew then and there she wanted to grow up and become a writer. Tilly was the new girl in town, and to all the other girls she seems strange and dirty and poor. The girls were mean to her until the “nice mother” made them be friendly to Tilly. This section of My Name is Lucy Barton, in which Lucy talks about how the story of Tilly made her want to write her own novel, is my favorite part of the entire book. I think anyone who loves books has moments in particular when they have been particularly grateful for the power of stories, whether that be bringing them together with other people or making them feel less alone when no one was there. I know that I am especially grateful to books, and I find the notion of writing stories of your own to give back extremely poignant.
“My teacher saw that I loved reading, and she gave me books, even grown-up books, and I read them. And then later in high school I still read books, when my homework was done, in the warm school. But the books brought me things. This is my point. They made me feel less alone. This is my point. And I thought: I will write and people will not feel so alone!”
Lucy is plagued by the memories of her childhood upbringing, and we learn that as an adult she goes to see some sort of therapist who encourages her to write down her thoughts and memories as a sort of coping device. If you weren’t aware of this fact, the narrative of My Name is Lucy Barton seems rather distracted and moves all over the place with no real direction. However, if you look at this book as Lucy’s journal everything falls perfectly into place. This novel reads just like a writer’s journal, as if we are reading Lucy’s thoughts as they happen and not in any premeditated order. At times it can be confusing and little bit messy, but so is life, and therein lies the beauty of this novel. It is the story of Lucy Barton, of her high points and low points and all the points in between. It is filled with happiness and sadness, birth and death, love and tragedy. It doesn’t always make sense, and it’s most definitely not perfect, but it her story. I think everyone feels at some point in their life that they are being defined by the people around them: their significant others, their siblings, their families. This novel is Lucy’s way of declaring that she is unapologetically herself. This is not the story of Lucy’s marriage, of her parents, of her childhood or her daughter or even her friends. It is the story of a woman, a woman named Lucy Barton, and it is an absolutely beautiful piece of fiction.
“But this is my story. And yet it is the story of many. It is Molla’s story, my college roommate’s, it may be the story of the Pretty Nicely Girls. Mommy. Mom! But this one is my story. This one. And my name is Lucy Barton.”
Overall, I really loved My Name is Lucy Barton. I’m so thankful that I decided to set out and read the Man Booker long list, for without it I never would have picked up this novel and I am so, so glad that I did. This is not a majorly plot-driven book, but you don’t read this book for the plot. You read it to hear the incredible voice of Lucy Barton, a voice that will stay with you long after you turn the final pages of her story. You read it for the incredible look at the life of a young woman and the profound impact that our childhood experiences have on our later life. You read it simply because it’s a beautiful book, and in our modern world I think we could all use a little bit more beauty in our lives. I have only read two books off the Man Booker long list so far, but I already know for a fact that if I had to guess what books will make the short list, My Name is Lucy Barton would make the cut.
The writing in this novel is absolutely stunning, and I wish I could include every single quote I wrote down from this novel in my review. Unfortunately that would make this a unbearably long post, however I will share with you a few more of my favorite quotes from My Name is Lucy Barton, and hopefully you’ll get a sense of why I loved this book so much:
- “‘This is Lucy.’ She added, almost playfully, ‘Lucy comes from nothing.’ I took no offense, and really, I take none now. But I think: No one in this world comes from nothing.”
- “So life goes on, I thought. (And now I think: It goes on, until it doesn’t.)”
- “I have said before: It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people. It happens everywhere, and all the time. Whatever we call it, I think it’s the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down.”
If you’ve read any of Elizabeth Strout’s other novels, do let me know down in the comments as I’m quite eager to read more of her works. Also, I’d love to know what you think if you’ve also read My Name is Lucy Barton. Until next time, arrivederci. 🙂