Friday, December 2, 2016
My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout: A review
Elizabeth Strout once again explores the mother/daughter relationship in My Name is Lucy Barton. As a daughter of a mother and a mother of daughters, I find the subject irresistible, and I can't really think of any writer who does it better than Strout.
The eponymous title character has plenty of time to meditate on the intricacies and complications of such relationships as she lies in a hospital bed for nine long weeks. She had entered the hospital for an appendectomy in which everything proceeded routinely, except that then she was struck down by a bacterial infection which threatened her life.
At the time of her illness, Lucy Barton was married to a man with a demanding job and was the mother of two small daughters. She was a budding writer. When her hospital stay stretched into weeks, her husband was not able to spend much time with her and she didn't really have any friends to take up the slack. And, of course, hospital regulations for the most part kept her daughters away. It was a very lonely time for her.
Lucy's husband tried to mend the situation by calling her mother, from whom she had been estranged for many years, and asking her to come to New York and be with her sick daughter. He paid for her airplane ticket from Illinois. She had never been on a plane, but she came and sat by her daughter's bedside for several days, refusing the cot offered by the staff and catnapping on her chair. And she talked to Lucy.
She talked about people back in her hometown of Amgash, Illinois. She talked about people from Lucy's childhood. It was a gentle gossip which seemed to help reconnect the two long-estranged people. But it was all surface stuff - idle chit-chat. She never went any deeper to the tensions that existed in their troubled family, the poverty and humiliation that were so much a part of the Barton family's life when Lucy was growing up, or to the reasons that Lucy had sought to escape and fulfill her desire to be a writer.
And yet, Lucy loved the sound of her mother's voice and it was a comfort to her during her time of need. As her mind wandered off into tangents from the sound of that voice, we are privy to her thoughts and we learn about traumatic events of childhood and what has made Lucy the person that she is. We learn, too, about her present-day relationships with her own daughters and with her husband, relationships that her mother, strangely, never asks about.
Much of Lucy's reminiscences of her childhood are painfully sad, full of grinding poverty and occasional abuse. It is the portrait of a joyless, dysfunctional family. We learn that in her relationships with her own daughters, Lucy tries to overcompensate, to ensure that she is ever attentive to all their needs. It's a familiar theme of a parent trying to avoid the mistakes of one's own upbringing and making new mistakes, which her children will someday try to avoid.
Even when discussing difficult memories from the past, there always seems to be a tenderness and gentleness in the telling of the story. It is part of the genius of Elizabeth Strout's writing, I think, to convey a certain empathy and understanding for her characters' actions, even when those characters are not necessarily likable people. I found this to be true in her wonderful Olive Kitteridge and it is a quality that is present here once again. The perceptions of the human condition which she conveys to us are both meaningful and wise and they give us hope that our species may, in fact, have some redeeming qualities.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars