31 Mar My Name Is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout
What We All Know And Don’t Always Tell
Elizabeth Strout’s latest book is a short novel about what we all know – insoluble familial bonds. And if that were not enough, also about the exasperating bonds that only mothers and daughters understand.
Through the narrator, Lucy Barton, the author tells a story of a dysfunctional family connected forever by imperfect love – “Because we all love imperfectly.”
Elizabeth Strout: Say I Love You
Lucy grew up in rural Illinois. The family lived in a relative’s cold garage. “Most nights supper was molasses on bread.” The kids hunted for food in dumpsters. And there wasn’t always a bar of soap to be had. They were such complete outcasts that the Sunday school teacher ignored them. The parents thought nothing of publicly humiliating their son or of locking Lucy in a truck with a snake. That sad, abusive upbringing taught her that she only had “the inside of my head to call my own.”
The only one of the three siblings to go to college, Lucy settles in New York, becomes a writer, marries and has two daughters. But she can’t escape “the knowledge of darkness” that follows her from childhood. Still, the pull of roots “twisted so tenaciously around one another’s hearts” lets her conclude sometimes that “it was not that bad.”
The central episode takes place in a hospital where Lucy’s mother whom she had not heard from in years comes to visit her. She stays for five days, filling the silence with placid gossip about townsfolk and their failed marriages. To Lucy’s questions she responds reluctantly. But Lucy is content, at first, to simply hear her mother’s voice and to be called by her childhood nickname. Later she admits to herself: “I wanted my mother to ask about my life. I wanted to tell her about the life I was living now.” Most of all she yearns to hear that her mother loves her — that never comes.
It is what Elizabeth Strout leaves unsaid in these largely one-sided conversations and in the memories they evoke in Lucy that show us her life and reveal the longing she can’t overcome.
Daily Fabric of Life
While reading this book and long after you close it you’ll find yourself reflecting on and reliving your own relationships. Like Lucy, we leave important things unsaid and nurse the hurts inflicted on us and wonder about the impact of the hurts inflicted by us. Who would not relate to her thoughts about her grown daughters (even if one has sons): “I try to forget, but I will never forget. I worry about what it is they will never forget.”
And Lucy addresses me personally when she says, “There is now a large interest in ancestry, and that means names and places and photos and court records, but how do we find out what the daily fabric of a life was?” – That daily fabric of life I try to bring to life on this site.
Although packed with emotions, the narrative in My Name is Lucy Barton is simple and low-key. So low-key, in fact, that we don’t notice how the seemingly random reminiscences grow on us, ultimately delivering an intense, a profound story. As always, Elizabeth Strout does not tell you how to think, she makes you think.