The Bossy Bookworm
Review of My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
The title of the book feels like an important assertion from Lucy; she is finally owning who she is as well as her story, her choices, and her very essence.
At one point in this book Lucy reflects that "I like writers who are trying to tell you something truthful." I do too, and it feels like Elizabeth Strout is telling us something that is real here. She retraces many of Lucy's life moments that loom large for her; explores tragedies that are significant but sometimes diminished by those who lived through them; and shows Lucy's hard-fought analysis of who she is and the truths she eventually realizes about herself and her life.
Lucy reflects in the present day upon her difficult childhood of extreme poverty in rural Illinois, some of her family members’ odd and sometimes dark impulses, her constant hunger and cold, and her status as an outcast—as well as her parents’ past and current denial of any of these issues or problems.
Her father seems to have had post-war PTSD, which manifests itself in bursts of anger, a difficulty holding down jobs repairing farm machinery, and bizarre and disturbing behavior Lucy doesn’t detail (she does later seem to allude to what it is) but that she calls The Thing.
Lucy has brief but (for her) pivotal encounters with strangers, acquaintances, and medical professionals who she often says she “loves” or who seem able to affect her life in shockingly meaningful ways. Yet it makes sense that this thoughtful woman would be eager and starving for connection after her painful childhood.
Much of the page time in Elizabeth Strout's My Name is Lucy Barton is spent in the hospital during a mysterious illness Lucy experienced many years ago in the 1980s, when her children were small. Her oddball mother (who Lucy desperately adores but who requires careful avoidance of certain topics or realities, and who she hadn’t seen in years and had hardly spoken to more often than that), arrives and stays in the room around the clock, catnapping, gleefully gossiping about the many marriages in their community that have imploded and the circumstances in which that occurred, and denying anything negative about their past or their lives. She eschews any talk of Lucy’s children, marriage, real life, saying “I love you,” or of memories that hold any uncomfortable truths. There are a lot of off-limits topics, and Lucy assiduously attempts to navigate the conversational minefield her mother insists upon for her to be present.
An excellent student, as a high schooler, Lucy was offered a scholarship to college and escaped her town and family. Later she became a published author. The enormity of her leap from her past claustrophobic circumstances to her present freedom (the months-long hospital stay notwithstanding) is staggering, except that Lucy often still feels like the little girl trying to make herself small, no trouble, and possibly not even real.
Her mother notes—with what seems like wonder and some resentment—that Lucy "ruthlessly" just went and did what she intended to do with her life. In response to her mother's comment, Lucy says:
But really, the ruthlessness, I think, comes in grabbing onto myself, in saying: This is me, and I will not go where I can't bear to go--to Amgash, Illinois--and I will not stay in a marriage when I don't want to, and I will grab myself and hurl onward through life, blind as a bat, but on I go! This is the ruthlessness, I think.
The book's title is interesting—Lucy recounts a passing (but consequential for her) encounter with an author in New York City years earlier when she notes that because the woman is so timid and without confidence about her significance (similar to Lucy's own feelings about herself), she could barely say her own name. The title of the book, along with Lucy’s restating “My name is Lucy Barton” at the end, feels like an important assertion from Lucy; she is now owning who she is as well as her story, her choices, and her very essence.
I listened to the audiobook, and I really liked the narrator Kimberly Farr.
What did you think?
My favorite Elizabeth Strout books are Anything Is Possible and Olive, Again. But I'll read anything written by her. Her character studies are fascinating to me.
I was intrigued by Lucy's hard-fought evolution and realizations, and I was intrigued by her haltingly told story and reflections in a way that I was not, for example, with regard to Ann Patchett's characters and the memories and life stories they recounted at length in The Dutch House.