My Name Is Lucy Barton: A Novel
Author: Elizabeth Strout
Publisher: Random House 2016
Genre: literary novel
Hardcover edition: 191 pages
Source: Personal copy
Elizabeth Strout, in seemingly simple straightforward prose, illuminates the deep feelings people experience as they live their lives. Her stories are not complicated or fancy. In this one Lucy Barton is forced to spend a long period in the hospital, mostly away from her husband and children. Her mother lives half a country away in another state but comes to the hospital to visit even though they have not seen each other for many years; and her mother stays by Lucy’s bedside. She and her mother talk of home-town gossip and Lucy remembers her childhood, much of it unpleasant, deprived and worse. But Ms. Strout doesn’t dwell on this, events are conveyed in short explosive bursts.
Ms. Strout writes scenes between characters and short tales of people known by her characters, ordinary people with ordinary failings. We readers are forced to see our unlovely characteristics. Reading about Lucy makes me sorry for my cruelty to others, those I like very much, those I truly love and those I care less about. I am reminded how cruelty escapes us when we least expect it, moving like a dripping faucet and sometimes like the quick cough from a long unused water pipe.
Lucy Barton is a writer and she goes to a workshop conducted by a more well-known writer named Sarah Payne. Ms. Payne says her job as a fiction writer is to report on the human condition, tell us who we are and what we think and what we do. This is what Strout does so well. The characters in Ms. Strout’s novels make me sad or at least this reader feels like Strout writes the icy sadness we often allow to crust over the surface of our lives. She does this with beautiful prose, simple and spare.
As I read the book, I find myself wondering what is story? What is the best way to tell a story. What is the value of a story within a story? I do not discover the answers to any of these questions, but it seems Ms. Strout is a master of storytelling, especially stories that seem simple, and perhaps are not.
Lucy Barton is a character I will remember and I will be filled with sadness and empathy for her for a long time, I think. Yet she is a successful author who overcomes difficulties and finds love and happiness in spite of the challenges in her life. She is, after all, an inspiration. Character and author have that in common.