Books · Emotional Health

A New Treasure from Elizabeth Strout: ‘My Name is Lucy Barton’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Elizabeth Strout is one of our best writers of contemporary fiction. Her 2008 book, Olive Kitteridge, is a series of stories all featuring one character, though she is not the protagonist in every tale. Flinty and blunt, Olive is a difficult person to like, but she is one of truest and most fully drawn fictional portraits I have ever encountered. Strout was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for it, and HBO turned the stories into a wonderful series starring Frances McDormand.

Strout’s latest novel, My Name is Lucy Barton, is also a character study, and like all of this author’s work, her prose is spare, direct, and entirely authentic. Lucy Barton, writing from a present perspective, presents us with a “memoir” of a time in the 1980s when she had a serious post-appendectomy infection and was hospitalized for 9 weeks. She is married with young daughters and living in New York. Her husband, William, summons her mother from the very small Illinois town where Lucy grew up, to come visit her in the hospital while he tends to work and child-rearing. What unfolds is the story of the five days she and her mother spend together and the discussions, memories, and feelings that are generated during the visit.

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We discover that Lucy has not seen her mother for many years—not since she brought her husband home from college to meet her parents. Her father, after learning that William’s own father had served as a German soldier during World War II, refused to accept him. He had had bad war experiences, and throughout the novel traumatic events in Lucy’s parents’ past are referred to indirectly. Her mother, for example, sits upright in a chair next to the hospital bed during the entire five-day visit, consistently refusing the nurses’ offers to bring her a cot. She says she likes to catnap, saying , “You know I don’t sleep lots.” Later she remarks that it’s hard to  sleep when you are afraid, but Lucy never finds out why her mother felt endangered. READ MORE

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  • Leslie in Oregon February 6, 2016 at 6:54 pm

    Thank you for this very perceptive, articulate review of a very rewarding book by one of our very best writers.

    Reply