March 07, 2016

My Name Is Lucy Barton - Elizabeth Strout

Random House, January 12, 2016.

Four Stars

This is a short little novel – not quite a novella – with a lot of weight to it. It is the first book I have read by Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout, and it definitely left me inspired to read more. Strout uses spare, straightforward language to evoke a wealth of emotion. Over the span of five days, an estranged mother visits with her adult daughter, Lucy, who is in the hospital for an extended stay. The novel ostensibly takes place over these five days, yet it encompasses so much more than that, moving backward and forward in time.

There is tension between mother and daughter, but also a depth of feeling that bridges any estrangement. Lucy’s conversations with her mother are much more complex than they first seem, as she reflects back on an impoverished childhood that borders on abusive, and considers how her upbringing affects her ability to parent her own daughters.

Lucy’s observations on life are hallucinatory and dreamlike – her experience in the hospital pulls her from everyday life and she begins to lose touch with her reality at home. Because the doctors can’t figure out exactly what is wrong with her, Lucy is living in a sort of limbo, stuck between her past and future selves. She reflects back on a life as “Lucy Barton,” and wonders what it is exactly that makes her who she is.

The novel packs many themes into a small package, yet most important is the concept of family. Lucy’s thoughts explore the distance between people, in spite of their love for each other. She attempts to bridge this distance via shared memories with her mother, but their different views of the past only raise more questions on what is real.

Aside from Lucy’s roles as daughter, wife, and mother, she is also a writer – which forces us to consider whether there is an autobiographical element to Strout’s work. Lucy is focused on exploring why people should write and read. She comes to the realization that “[t]he books brought me things. This is my point. They made me feel less alone. This is my point. And I thought: I will write and people will not feel so alone!” (Loc. 279). The readers will feel less alone, but so too will Lucy, who uses her writing to connect with a larger community. Lucy is trapped inside her own head, as well as her hospital room, but she knows that fiction is the path to empathy with the world around her.

This is a simple story written in sparse language, but the subject matter is dense. Lucy is a well-rounded, multi-faceted character. I highly recommend reading this short novel in one sitting, which allows the reader to seamlessly pull all the threads together.

I received this novel from Random House and Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

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