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My Name Is Lucy Barton: A Novel Paperback – October 11, 2016
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An Amazon Best Book of January 2016: Do not be misled by the slimness of this volume, the quietness of its prose, the seeming simplicity of its story line: Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton is as powerful and disturbing as the best of Strout’s work, including the Pulitzer Prizewinning Olive Kitteridge. In fact, it bears much resemblance to that novel-- and to Strout’s debut Amy and Isabelle--in that it deals with small-town women, who are always more complicated than they seem and often less likable than many contemporary heroines. Here, Strout tells the story of a thirtysomething wife and mother who is in the hospital for longer than she expected, recovering from an operation. She’s not dying, but her situation is serious enough that her mother-- whom she has not seen in many years-- arrives at her bedside. The two begin to talk. Their style is undramatic, gentle-- just the simple unspooling of memories between women not generally given to sharing them; still, the accumulation of detail and the repetitive themes of longing and lifelong missed connections add up to revelations that, in another writer’s heavy hands, might be melodramatic. In Strout’s they are anything but. Rarely has a book been louder in its silences, or more plainly and completely devastating. --Sara Nelson --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.
“There is not a scintilla of sentimentality in this exquisite novel. Instead, in its careful words and vibrating silences, My Name Is Lucy Barton offers us a rare wealth of emotion, from darkest suffering to—‘I was so happy. Oh, I was happy’—simple joy.”—Claire Messud, The New York Times Book Review
“Spectacular . . . My Name Is Lucy Barton is smart and cagey in every way. It is both a book of withholdings and a book of great openness and wisdom. . . . [Elizabeth Strout] is in supreme and magnificent command of this novel at all times.”—Lily King, The Washington Post
“My Name Is Lucy Barton is a short novel about love, particularly the complicated love between mothers and daughters, but also simpler, more sudden bonds. . . . It evokes these connections in a style so spare, so pure and so profound the book almost seems to be a kind of scripture or sutra, if a very down-to-earth and unpretentious one.”—Marion Winik, Newsday
“Lucy Barton is . . . potent with distilled emotion. Without a hint of self-pity, Strout captures the ache of loneliness we all feel sometimes.”—Time
“An aching, illuminating look at mother-daughter devotion.”—People
“A quiet, sublimely merciful contemporary novel about love, yearning, and resilience in a family damaged beyond words.”—The Boston Globe
“Sensitive, deceptively simple . . . Strout captures the pull between the ruthlessness required to write without restraint and the necessity of accepting others’ flaws. It is Lucy’s gentle honesty, complex relationship with her husband, and nuanced response to her mother’s shortcomings that make this novel so subtly powerful. . . . My Name Is Lucy Barton—like all of Strout’s fiction—is more complex than it first appears, and all the more emotionally persuasive for it.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“Strout maps the complex terrain of human relationships by focusing on that which is often unspoken and only implied. . . . [My Name Is Lucy Barton is] a powerful addition to Strout’s body of work.”—The Seattle Times
“Impressionistic and haunting . . . Much of the joy of reading Lucy Barton comes from piecing together the hints and half-revelations in Strout’s unsentimental but compelling prose, especially as you begin to grasp the nature of a bond in which everything important is left unsaid. . . . Strout paints an indelible, grueling portrait of poverty and abuse that’s all the more unnerving for her reticence. With My Name Is Lucy Barton, she reminds us of the power of our stories—and our ability to transcend our troubled narratives.”—Miami Herald
“Lovely and heartbreaking . . . a major work in minimalist form . . . In the character of Lucy, Strout has fashioned one of the great resilient modern heroines.”—Portland Press-Herald
“Strout has proven once again that she is a master of creating unforgettable characters. . . . Her stories open themselves to the reader in a way that is familiar and relatable, but then she delivers these zingers and we marvel at her talent.”—The Post and Courier
“Writing of this quality comes from a commitment to listening, from a perfect attunement to the human condition, from an attention to reality so exact that it goes beyond a skill and becomes a virtue.”—Hilary Mantel
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Lucy is soft, sweet, likable, kind--that much is clear right away. She's wounded, and, despite the fact that she's older, married with kids, and enjoying moderate success as a writer, she's still walking around shell-shocked by childhood traumas. I kept picturing Lucy as an injured kitten mewing helplessly in the street, and I wanted to take care of her. From the first few pages, I readied myself to settle in and hear it all. Tell me everything, Lucy. Mew away.
And Lucy has some interesting things to say, especially about dysfunctional and abusive families--things I understand and identify with, truthfully. She's insightful and honest, and it's obvious that Lucy wants to be strong. She wants to be OKAY. But she's also so desperate to be loved, to be seen--especially by her mother--that sometimes she keeps the truth tucked neatly away. In fact, she'd rather forgive her mom everything than acknowledge that her mom is capable of so much cruelty. (The moments when Lucy essentially begs for her mother's paltry scraps of affection are tough to read.)
Early on, Lucy describes how confused she is about her own childhood, and her observation on the subject pretty much sets the tone for the whole book: "There are times now, and my life has changed so completely, that I think back on the early years and I find myself thinking: It was not that bad. Perhaps it was not. But there are times, too--unexpected--when walking down a sunny sidewalk, or watching the top of a tree bend in the wind, or seeing a November sky close down over the East River, I am suddenly filled with the knowledge of darkness so deep that a sound might escape from my mouth, and I will step into the nearest clothing store and talk with a stranger about the shape of sweaters newly arrived. 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 remember the first time I told someone that my mom hit us with a wooden spoon when we did something wrong (mostly on our lower halves, but, then again, often not), and that person responded with genuine horror and repulsion. I remember thinking, "Oh, maybe it really was bad." Because when it's happening, it doesn't feel good, sure, but it still feels "normal." As a child, I just assumed I was bad enough to earn the punishment and too weak to "take it" emotionally afterward. It was years before I realized that things could have gone a different way.
My point being that I get it. I get why Lucy is confused. I get the need to look back and hash it all out, but I also understand why it isn't always easy to wrap your mind around the things that have happened. Of course I wanted Lucy to stop being so obviously needy with her mom. I wanted her to accept that her mom was incapable of meeting her (completely reasonable) needs. But I understood why Lucy couldn't. Abuse is a mindf*ck, especially in childhood. When you love someone, you want to believe that person loves you back. It's just about the hardest thing in the world to admit when s/he doesn't--and, WORSE, that it isn't even your fault. Because if it's not your fault, if you can't make yourself better and EARN that love, well, then you really have no control anymore; there is no making it better, because, finally, it isn't about you.
At any rate, I really enjoyed reading this book. It was a short read but an absolutely lovely one. Kudos to Strout for tackling such tough issues while creating another wonderful and memorable character.
This novel, set in the eighties mostly in a Manhattan hospital room, gives us Lucy, the patient, and her mother, whom her husband, William, has flown to her side. It is through their dialogue and silences that we learn about the harshly poor environment that Lucy, her parents and two siblings endured before she won a college scholarship and left them. The mother is by turns taciturn then blunt, and withholding of affection, but she's still the person Lucy calls Mother, and they pass time amiably. They give nicknames to the attendants. They look at cheap magazines. The mother refuses a cot; she catnaps as she has all her life, signaling that she's never really felt safe. Lucy sleeps and yearns for her two little girls, downtown in the Village.
Strout is an observer of character, and this novel, like Olive Kitteridge, centers on a woman that many would find difficult. Lucy is a writer, and she becomes successful, following the advice of Jeremy, who succumbs to AIDS while Lucy is in the hospital. The girls become young women, and Lucy leaves William, but it is the years of their marriage and this illness that Stout examines here. Our lives pass quickly, she seems to say, and we must be fierce and unflinching if we are to live them fully. Only that makes way for compassion.
There is so much beautiful writing in this very short book. Lucy thinks, “It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people. It happens everywhere and all the time. Whatever we call, I think it’s the lowest part of who we are, this need to put other people down.”
Also, Lucy has had some small success as a writer and learns from a writer named Sarah Payne who tells Lucy about the book she is writing, “This is a story about a mother her loves her daughter imperfectly. Because we all love imperfectly.”
Now living in New York City, Lucy Barton recalls one brief time in her life when she was hospitalized in Manhattan with a mysterious infection. While in her hospital bed, she recalls her impoverished childhood life in rural Amgash, Illinois and the people who influenced her as she grew to adulthood--from the school janitor to her abusive and dysfunctional parents to a college professor with whom she had an affair to her husband. It is so engrossing and meaningful. Much in this book will make you pause and think.
This is the prequel to "Anything Is Possible," which is a series of stories about the people in Amgash with Lucy Barton as a thread throughout. Do read "My Name Is Lucy Barton" first to fully appreciate "Anything Is Possible."
Aside to Elizabeth Strout: YOU are a ruthless writer!
Aside to Everyone Else: Read the book, and you will know why this is a compliment.
Most recent customer reviews
No insight only feigned empathy.
No character development only glimpses of a projected perspective.