Lucy Barton is recovering from surgery in a New York City hospital with a view of the Chrysler Building. She’d gone into the hospital to have her appendix removed and ended up staying for nine weeks, fighting an infection that nobody seemed able to identify. During her time in the hospital, her mother comes to stay for a few days and as the two women sit together, parts of Lucy’s childhood float to the surface. This is the premise of Elizabeth Strout’s novel My Name if Lucy Barton. Last year I read Olive Kitteridge, a book which had been languishing on my tbr shelf for years. I loved it. I really enjoyed this book, too. It’s a quiet book and as the story moved along, it seemed to build in intensity.
Lucy and her mother have a strained relationship; in fact, they have not spoken in several years, but when she shows up at Lucy’s bedside “using my pet name, which I had not heard in ages, [it] made me feel warm and liquid-filled, as though all my tension had been a solid thing, and now was not.”
For five days, Lucy’s mother sits with her and the two talk of the past, a past which hadn’t been necessarily kind to them.
We were oddities, our family, even in that tiny rural town of Amgash, Illinois, where there were other homes that were run-down and lacking fresh paint or shutters or gardens, no beauty for the eye to rest on. […] We were told on the playground by other children, “Your family stinks,” and they’d run off pinching their noses with their fingers; my sister was told by her second-grade teacher – in front of the class – that being poor was no excuse for having dirt behind the ears, no one was too poor to buy a bar of soap.
Lucy gets out, though. A teacher recognizes Lucy’s love of reading and provides her with lots of books to read. The books make Lucy feel “less alone. This is my point. And I thought: I will write and people will not feel so alone!” Despite her insecurities, Lucy takes herself, her studies and her writing very seriously and earns herself a full-ride scholarship to college. This is the beginning of Lucy’s journey of self-discovery and also the beginning of her exile from her family. It is only her mother’s arrival at her bedside which makes her re-examine her roots and she is telling this story from many years in the future when she actually has the perspective necessary to understand.
As Lucy and her mother share stories about the people of Amgash, Lucy also looks more closely at her memories of her family and her own strengths and weaknesses as a person. These observations are the heart and soul of Strout’s novel.
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.
I think My Name is Lucy Barton is a book that would benefit from a second read. It really asks the reader to look closely at their own lives, their harsh judgments of others, their estrangements, the second-chances we’re offered and often stupidly refuse. When Lucy and her husband divorce, Lucy’s adult daughter tells her “when you write a novel you get to rewrite it, but when you live with someone for twenty years, that is the novel, and you can never write that novel with anyone again!”
I think this is a novel that is deceptive, now that I’ve tried to capture my thoughts about it here. Quiet, yes, but powerful in the way that it examines one woman’s story. And that’s what we all have, our own stories.