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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 Hardcover 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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Top customer reviews
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.
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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