This is my third Elizabeth Strout book (Olive Kitteridge and The Burgess Boys). They each have very different strengths and approaches and I admire the artistry of all of them.
This short novel is narrated by a woman who grew up in the most awful circumstances. For her first 10 years her family (parents, a sister and a brother) lived in a garage and had very little to eat. She began staying after school as it was the one place she was warm enough. She used that time to study and became the perfect student and received the support needed to go to college, thus escaping from the horror that was her family. She had to learn how to operate in polite company and had been ignorant of popular culture.
At the beginning of the novel she tells that she had to stay in a hospital where she lived in New York for nine weeks as she had an infection that resisted treatment but eventually was eliminated. For some days her mother sat at the end of her bed keeping her company, only sleeping in the chair provided. She was especially glad to have her company because Lucy’s husband was unable to visit, given his work, their two young children, and the household. In their conversations her mother did not acknowledge how awful their family life had been and Lucy was unable to broach the subject of the abuse she suffered.
Lucy speaks with great warmth and love for her doctor, an older man who had lost relatives in the Holocaust. He was unfailingly kind and thoughtful to her. This was a contrast to the interactions between Lucy and her mother. While she expresses her happiness to have her mother’s company, she did not express that trust and understanding as she did with the doctor.
Some years later Lucy’s mother died and then in a year, her father died.
When I got back to New York after seeing my father–and my mother, the year before–after seeing them for the last time, the world began to look different to me. My husband seemed a stranger, my children in their adolescence seemed indifferent to much of my world. I was really lost. I could not stop feeling panic, as if the Barton family, the five of us–off-kilter as we had been–was a structure over me I had not even known about until it ended. I kept thinking of my brother and my sister and the bewilderment in their faces when my father died. I keep thinking how the five of us had had a really unhealthy family, but I saw then too how our roots were twisted so tenaciously around one another’s hearts. My husband said, “But you didn’t even like them.” And I felt especially frightened after that.
Lucy became a successful writer and when her daughters went to college, she was terribly unhappy and her marriage ended. All this is told in oddly bloodless prose. It is the story of a person whose young life made her terribly isolated from others and at the same time able to discern certain interactions between people which enabled her to become a successful writer.
Elizabeth Strout, My Name is Lucy Barton, Random House, 2016, 208 pages (I read the kindle version). Available at the public library but oddly enough, not UVa. What’s up with that?