My Name is Lucy Barton

Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton is a quiet book, captivating in its understatement and simplicity.  Our narrator, Lucy, is recounting her experience of nine weeks in hospital in New York City in the 1980s and the visit of her mother, and what that prompts her to tell about the story of her life.    

Strout provides no real explanation or introduction before we meet Lucy, who self-consciously introduces herself and her story with almost abrupt reserve.  And why is she hospitalised for such an extended, life-altering period of time?  An infection that just took a while to go away.  And what is contained within the life she shares?  A desperately poor childhood; a father wildly and uncontrollably affected by PTSD; a later literary success.  No big deal is made here.

There is also some delightful, subtle play with the nature of this book and the character of Lucy.  We are reading her story about her experience with her mother in hospital; we are being told about Lucy’s experience of writing about this same experience.  At a week-long writers workshop run by another author, Lucy’s manuscript is read and she is told:

“‘Never defend your work.  This is a story about love, you know that.  This is a story of a man who has been tortured every day of his life for things he did in the war.  This is the story of a wife who stayed with him, because most wives did in that generation, and she comes to her daughter’s hospital room and talks compulsively about everyone’s marriage going bad, she doesn’t even know it, doesn’t even know what she’s doing…we all love imperfectly.  But if you find yourself protecting anyone as you write this piece remember this: You’re not doing it right.'”

This is what her manuscript is ostensibly about, and this is what this book is demonstrably about.

I know this book has been loved and widely, widely recommended.  I’m not sure if I am as enthusiastic.  It such a shining piece of observation and beauty, multi-faceted, refracting another sharp moment of life before rapidly the light shifts and we move on.  Perhaps its understated approach is just a reflection on the character of Lucy, the survivor of a life of dark lows and vertiginous highs.  No drama is made of her life, in her narration, in this book.

“Then I understood I would never marry him.  It’s funny how one thing can make you realise 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.”

This moment struck me with such poignancy that I re-read it several times.  “Oh.”  The moment your life pivots doesn’t have to be earth-shattering, or a daytime soap drama.  And perhaps the understated nature of Lucy and her narration is a peaceful and realistic antidote to the usual extremity of opinion and diatribe.

So I liked this book, but didn’t love it.  However it has stayed with me, and writing this review a couple of weeks after finishing it there is still a quiet gleam of quality and fascination that has remained.  It is undeniable that Strout is a talented writer, and Lucy Barton is a nuanced, fascinating and restrained lead character and narrator, beguiling in her understatement.

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