How do you put the hushed experiences of your childhood into words? Should you? Does recreating oneself and assimilating into New York’s diverse population give you enough distance to promise happiness? Lucy Barton, narrator in Elizabeth Strout’s most recent novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton, tries to do these things as she reflects on her family, marriage and friendships.
In her narration, Lucy tries to explain her evolution as a fiction writer. She talks about her past, particularly a period of her life in the 1980s, when she was hospitalized for nine weeks for an unidentified infection. Her mother, whom she hasn’t seen for years, boards a plane for the first time and travels from Amgash, Illinois to be with Lucy. She provides an unexpected comfort.
Her being there, using my pet name, which I had not heard in ages, made me feel warm and liquid-filled, as though all my tension had been a solid thing and now was not.
Not a surprising reaction, until Lucy tells about a lonely childhood, growing up hopelessly poor and living in a garage until she was twelve. She’s estranged from her father, who suffers from a traumatic war experience in Germany. Other unnamed events haunt Lucy and her brother and sister, who coped in their own ways.
As they pass the time in the hospital, however, Lucy and her mother connect through her mother’s stories about other people in Amgash. This opportunity to become mother and daughter is not completely fulfilled, however, because they only dance around the tough subjects.
Lucy’s story moves between her time in the hospital, her childhood and marriage, bringing the reader to the present in the final pages of the book. A chance meeting with a popular fiction writer makes her wonder about her own career. The writer tells Lucy’s writing class, “You will have only one story. You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one.”
I’m not sure I completely understand this book. It’s extremely readable, but for someone who likes to know the facts, it’s also frustrating. Everything in the story is vague: Lucy’s illness, her past, her relationships, her marriage. I had a hard time getting a grip on the message. What’s probably the point is how nearly impossible it is to understand relationships and how hard it is to talk about painful memories. Maybe the only way to do that is forget the past and connect in any way you can, as Lucy does in the hospital with her mother and when she returns to Amgash for the last time.
The only solid relationship in the story is between Lucy and her doctor, who becomes a father figure to her, yet Strout deliberately leaves him unnamed and he fades from Lucy’s life once she leaves the hospital. I wanted to know more about this character.
The danger of a fast read is in missing important themes. I may have to re-read this one to understand it better. Have you read Lucy Barton? What was your reaction?
Thanks for visiting – come back soon!