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My Name Is Lucy Barton: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, January 12, 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
“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.
Olive Kitteridge deserved the Pulitzer Prize in Literature in 2009. And were I on that committee for this year, my vote would be cast for My Name Is Lucy Barton (even though I don’t think the title is a good one for what this amazing novel offers the reader).
These two Elizabeth Strout novels are both very much alike thematically but oh-so-very different, revealing just how skilled Strout is with her craft.
I chuckled when, on a recent “Fresh Air” (NPR) interview with Terry Gross, the author said of Olive when asked about how she developed the character: “I just let her rip!” Indeed Olive does exactly that.
But Lucy, highly traumatized from her childhood (as is everyone in that household, or so we are led to believe as we move through the novel), is so unlike Olive. Lucy is sweet, caring, a woman who sees the good in others. (Olive does occasionally as well.)
Olive Kitteridge, written in third person and in a series of inter-related stories that emerge as a novel, is so unlike the first-person Lucy fictional memoir because that is what this novel is: written as a memoir. Lucy herself is a novelist—and published—and has taken a writing workshop with another well respected writer of fiction, Sarah Payne. (But should you decide to look for the books each has published, you’ll find nothing! Will Elizabeth Strout now assume those two identities and write—and publish in their names—their works?)
The novel is just under 200 pages and in short chapters. Lucy Barton (her original name and we never do learn what her husband’s last name is—at least I don’t recall that we do) is a wife and mother of two daughters. Lucy, in the mid-80s and as the AIDS epidemic was emerging into public awareness, has been hospitalized for an appendectomy. But complications emerge, resulting in her being in that New York City hospital for several weeks. She can see the Chrysler Building from her bed. Her husband comes only twice to see her. And when he brings their daughters, Lucy can see that the woman who is caring for them isn’t doing a good job. But Lucy says nothing. (This woman will emerge at the end of the novel in a surprising role.)
Lucy Barton loves her Big Apple life, an escape from the small Illinois town where she spent a terrible childhood, sometimes locked in her father’s truck when he and her mother were at work. One time a snake spent the day in the cab with her—and this is one of the traumas she has never conquered. Her brother slept occasionally with the pigs and wore, occasionally, women’s clothing. And then there was this issue: “What as a child I had called—to myself—the Thing, meaning an incident of my father becoming very anxious and not in control of himself.” The reader will not discover for certain what the Thing is until near the end when it becomes the central image representing what occurs in this novel. This is a family that cannot confront the abuse, the total dysfunction that has such deep roots, hence why I say the novel has a similar theme to the one the runs through Olive Kitteridge where so many characters are depressed and often suicidal.
For Lucy it was the discovery of books in third grade that saved her and then propelled her into her life as an author. (Based on the interview with Terry Gross, I realize that Elizabeth Strout had a wonderful childhood, living in the home of parents who were college professors at the University of New Hampshire. She spoke so lovingly of both parents.)
Lucy has not only not seenhermother since she left that little Illinois town but hasn’t heard from her either. Her mother has never seen her two New York City grandchildren, has never met their father. But suddenly she walks into Lucy’s hospital room. And there she stays for five days. Most of the novel involves what they talk about—and what they avoid talking about—during those days. But she doesn’t ever meet the granddaughters or son-in-law while in New York. The story emerges in oblique language. But not so oblique that the reader is left confused. That is the skill Lucy Barton has as a writer which, of course, means the skill the author herself has in writing this fictional memoir.
Fragile and oh-so-very-sweet, Lucy is, in her words, “so happy. Oh, I was happy speaking with my mother this way.”
Lucy has the ideal doctor—and she sort of falls in love with him. She has wonderful nurses for whom she and her mother select names representing their feelings toward the care takers.
This is also a novel about what makes a good novelist, with this advice from Sarah Payne: “If you find yourself protecting anyone as you write [about them], remember this: You’re not doing it right.”
That’s definitely the voice of the author of My Name Is Lucy Barton. As those of us who have read Olive know, Elizabeth Strout does not protect her protagonist. And she certainly doesn’t protect Lucy either.
And finally this from the chapter on pages 96-99 which I think is priceless, Elizabeth Strout’s opportunity through Sarah Payne to rebuke readers who write “reader reviews” in which they confuse the author’s views with the views of the characters created by the author, those types of reviews I ignore (I just didn’t like Olive Kitteridge as a person. I wish the author made her nicer. To which I want to write—and have occasionally—Then read Heidi!)
Most Recent Customer Reviews
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