Published January 2016 by Random House. Literary awards include Man Booker Prize Nominee for Longlist, Women’s Prize for Fiction Nominee for Longlist, and Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Fiction, all awarded in 2016.
For the second time, Elizabeth Strout has taken my breath away. Her prose and stories have this way of nudging right into the achy spots of my soul and I end up going off to do deep soul searching for a couple of days once I have finished her book (I’ve only read two of her books, but she is two-for-two if she is keeping score).
The story opens with Lucy recovering in a hospital bed from complications after a simple operation and is told from her voice through a series of conversations with her mother that provoke memories and introspection about Lucy’s childhood. She has been away from home for a long time, and her mother’s presence at her bedside ignites gentle conversation about their family’s past. Lucy has a deep ache to share things about her life with her mother, such as her desire to be a writer, issues in her marriage, and the joy of raising her two young daughters. But she also wants some answers.
Strout has a way of weaving beautiful stories around circumstances that many of us find uncomfortable. We see the characters truly struggle with issues that make them so, so very human. I read her 2009 Pulitzer Prize winning Olive Kitteridge years ago and recall one of the main themes being about suicide and the deeply complex emotions that surround it. I loved it, but had to read something light and fluffy afterwards to give myself a break.
Lucy Barton’s struggle is about poverty and how society sometimes holds it against people even though they (specifically children) may not have a choice in their circumstances. She spoke about poverty in a way that was new to me in literary journey, speaking about how society perceives her as less than the rest of humanity and the inability to separate herself from the stigma of it even after she has physically removed herself from the situation, rather than the poverty as an issue itself. Here is an example where she was talking to her college lover and felt the need to hide her past, but he still manages to strike the nerve:
“Still, I loved him. He asked what we ate when I was growing up. I did not say, ‘Mostly molasses on bread.’ I did say, ‘We had baked beans a lot.’ And he said, ‘What did you do after that, all hang around and fart?’ Then I understood that I would never marry him. Its funny how one thing can make you realize something like that. One can be ready to give up the children one always wanted, one can be ready to withstand remarks about one’s past or one’s clothes, but then – a tiny remark and the soul deflates and says: Oh. “
It seems to me that her parents were perfectly comfortable with their poverty status and Lucy has trouble resolving this against her own conflicting ideals and perceptions of her parents’ responsibility in their situation. The story has the subtle undercurrent of her spirit saying to her mother “This is not ok! How could you let us be those kids that showed up to school smelly and in dirty clothes? How could you not notice?” At times, when Lucy is finally holding her mother accountable, her mother would wave it away and change the subject. This was the most heartbreaking part for me… It is tragic when the grown child finally looks at the parent and asks “Why?” and it falls on deaf ears, or ears that either cannot or will not acknowledge the answers that the child so desperately needs.
“This must be the way most of us maneuver through the world, half knowing, half not, visited by memories that can’t possibly be true. But when I see others walking with confidence down the sidewalk, as though they are free completely from terror, I realize I don’t know how others are. So much of life seems speculation.“
I read My Name Is Lucy Barton in about four hours, and discovered it while I was considering Strout’s newer release Anything is Possible. Apparently, Lucy Barton connects the two stories, but I’m not clear how yet. It looks like something I would enjoy so I opted to go ahead and read My Name is Lucy Barton before reading Anything is Possible. I expect to read the new one in a couple of months.
I need to read more of Elizabeth Strout’s work. She truly is a master of her craft and I feel like I might be missing out by not doing so.
Let me know if you have read any of her work, and what your thoughts are. Cheers!
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