Saturday, March 12, 2016

"My Name is Lucy Barton," by Elizabeth Strout

Elizabeth Strout, best known as author of the highly praised bestseller “Olive Kittredge,” and author of several other works of fiction, has a new novel out: “My Name is Lucy Barton” (Random House, 2016). It is a short book (under 200 pages), and takes place mostly in a room in a hospital, over a period of only a few days, so there is a feeling of focus, containment, and even a bit of claustrophobia. It does allude to earlier events in the characters’ lives as well, but those events seem misty and far away. Lucy Barton has a strange and not-completely-identified illness or infection, following a simple surgery, that keeps her in the hospital for several weeks. Her husband hates hospitals and mostly stays away; he is also busy working and taking care of their two young daughters. Out of the blue, it seems (although it later turns out that Lucy’s husband has made a phone call), Lucy’s long-semi-estranged mother shows up at the hospital and settles into a guest chair, even sleeping there, refusing nurses’ offers of a cot. Lucy has missed her mother, even though she is associated in her mind with a very poor, very difficult childhood, and is touchingly happy to have her mother with her. They mostly talk or just stay quietly together. The talk is about unremarkable topics, such as her mother’s passing on news about people in the small town where she lives and where Lucy grew up. Once in a while they touch on the difficult matters of their lives during Lucy’s childhood, but tend to move away from such fraught topics before they go too deeply into them. However, Lucy derives deep comfort from the half-said things, the brief motherly touches, and her newly gained sense of having a history and being loved, something she was always insecure about. On the surface, this story is quite simple, and the author apparently does not feel the need to, or want to, explain everything about the backgrounds of the characters; she tells of them in glancing ways, and leaves it to readers to understand or speculate, or simply to accept that we can never know all there is to know. Obviously a strong theme is that of mother-daughter relationships, as is the theme of the lasting psychological effects of childhood, especially of difficult childhoods. But there is nothing didactic about this book. Readers feel they are fortunate to be able to eavesdrop on Lucy’s and her mother’s conversations, and even to sit quietly with them during the times when they barely speak.
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