Wednesday, November 23, 2016

My Name is Lucy Barton

My Name is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout

My Name is Lucy Barton was something I picked on a whim off the library shelf. I have not read her other works, namely Olive Kitteridge, which won the Pulitzer prize. The story is set up almost as vignettes that bounce back and forth between the past, the “present”, and then the “present” turns into past reflection. It is a book about memories—and possibly mistakes.

I say possibly as I don’t want to rob it of broader themes. A daughter, bedridden in a hospital with an unknown ailment, becomes the basis for her mother’s unexpected arrival. And, for 5 days the mother sits vigil and the two begin to revisit the past. A complicated one, but nothing out of the ordinary. There is no GREAT revelation; this is no The Glass Castle (Jeannette Walls). We have here in a fairly slim volume, the story of a family making ends meet in rural Illinois. We also have the story of the families around this family, the surrounding community. It is a book about marriages and desires, and what keep people together. The ties that bind.

What I want to emphasize is how “real” the narrative feels. Maybe it is my Midwestern sensibility, but the language resounds, to my ear, as authentic. Also the suppressed “niceness” (when the whole time people are judging you)—you can almost feel the chokehold. 

The daughter’s own marriage may or may not be on the rocks. We never know why exactly she needs to be hospitalized for 5 weeks. I suspect depression. There is more than physical fragility here; there is mental exhaustion as well. 

Growing up, my mother used to have these confessional talks with me such as the mother and daughter in the novel. Where Mom would confide under her breath about someone’s failings, their sins, how they “run off,” or had a black boyfriend, or was a secret drinker. Maybe the husband beat the wife or the son was known to wear his mother’s clothes at times. Families and small towns are full of such stories. The point is: for one second I felt close to Mommy—she was a friend in arms, rather than the undependable, moody mom I was used to. It was as if I could trust her.

And when the mom leaves to return home, nothing much has changed. My Name is Lucy Barton is about a moment in time, a moment of flashback and recall, without nostalgia. Looking back does not re-vision the past. It was hard then, it is hard now. There weren’t any answers, there aren’t any answers now. It took me all of one morning to consume this novel, a slice of life.

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