The eponymous narrator of Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton (2016, 191 pp) is sad and lonely. These are her own words, ones that she repeatedly uses to describe her condition. Loneliness is, she tells us, ‘the first flavour I had tasted in my life.’ Everyday things like a child’s story and a bumper sticker make her sad. We learn of Lucy’s life: her poor upbringing, failed marriage and the difficulty with her own children, and realise that this sadness has a much deeper cause. This is a novel about what can happen if the one thing that should guard against sadness and loneliness, parental love, goes missing and the attempts to salvage any scrap of it.
Lucy is the daughter of parents who strike their children ‘impulsively and vigorously’. Her father, tortured by a harrowing incident from the war, is particularly prone to bouts of cruelty, such as locking his children in a truck. Her mother, who like many women of that generation stuck by men like this, is helpless to stop these outbursts. They are a poor and isolated Illinois family. Until the age of eleven, Lucy and her two siblings are raised in a garage lined with fibreglass with only ‘a trickle of cold water from a makeshift sink.’ Dinner is rarely anything but ‘bread and molasses.’ Lucy finds her escape in books which she tells us ‘made me feel less alone,’ and she pledges to become a writer so that ‘people will not feel so alone.’ She makes it to college, marries and settles in New York
In New York she finds a city whose lights will make her feel that she has been ‘brought into the world’ (“Me! I’m living in the city of New York,” she will exclaim in delight). However, her isolated upbringing and embarrassment at knowing little of culture don’t make city life easy. In New York there is an increasingly distant husband, two children and few other acquaintances. The AIDS crisis hovers in the background, particularly in the figure of her neighbour, Jeremy, whose artwork she sees as “symptoms of a sophisticated world I could never understand.” Other than Jeremy there is a fellow parent and a forthright Swedish woman named Molla. Barton also meets a famous writer, Sarah Payne, who will act as a sort of mentor.
Barton tells us her story in retrospect, and we first meet her in a hospital room in the 1980s where she will spend nine weeks recovering from an operation. For five days her mother, whom she has not seen in years, visits her, and it is this visit that makes up the core of the novel. Mother and daughter pass their days making up names for the nurses and telling stories about old neighbours and acquaintances. Strout shows a great ear for the gossipy back and forth between the two as they catch up on the divorces, children and deaths of people like Evelyn who runs the ‘Cake Shoppe’ and ‘Kathie Nicely’, whose ex-husband, scandalously, may be a ‘homo’. What, of course, is much louder is everything they don’t talk about: her father’s violent outbursts known as ‘the thing’, why her thirty-six year old brother reads children’s books and sleeps in a barn, Lucy’s fledgling writing career, her own husband and children, and her life in New York.
The heart tugging writing combined with a natural feel for the lovely trivial details of everyday life along with the story of a poor girl who finds solace in education, moves to a big city for a better life but finds that this causes and irreparable rupture with home put me at times in mind of Alice Munro. This wasn’t as absorbing as Munro, mainly because Strout too often jolts us with ruminations on what it means to tell a story or the uncertainty of memory. There is too much obvious flagging up of narrative unreliability. Lots of her anecdotes and memories are concluded with phrases like ‘I am still not sure it’s a true memory,’ which kept putting too much ironic distance between Lucy and me.
This is not to say that Lucy Barton’s story is one not worth telling. It is, and Strout has her tell it simply, in ways that are funny, honest, melancholy and heartbreaking. When it time for roles to be reversed and for Lucy to visit her own mother in hospital she cannot quite give her ‘the kind of wide-awake constancy of attentiveness of those days she had been with me.’ Strout captures wonderfully all the pain and anguish that going home can encompass, particularly a visit that has been put off for so long because (and how many of us recognise this?) ‘it was easier not to.’
When Barton sees her father for the first time we are knocked out as readers. Strout captures the swirling mass of love, hatred, distance and regret that exists between parents and children, and how it can never be properly resolved, in a heartbreaking scene,
‘He looked so much older that I ever thought he could be…The disgust I had for him most of my life for him was not there…I hugged him and imagined the warmth of his hand against the back of my head. But in the hospital, that day, he did not, in fact, put his hand across the back of my head and something inside me – deep, deep inside – heard the whisper Gone.’
Like all children, Barton is willing to dredge up something, anything, which could reflect her parents in a good light, however briefly. She recalls her father buying her a toffee apple at a festival, ‘an extraordinary thing for him to have done.’ Her young teeth cannot crack it, so he eats it instead ‘because he had to. In my memory I love him for this…’ What is more astonishing to Lucy is while watching the festival, her father ‘had an interest in it.’
The Sarah Payne character tells Lucy at one point that ‘we all love imperfectly,’ and it is the many scenes of this imperfect love where the real emotional impact of the novel lies. We are left simply with a mother and daughter, a daughter who, dozing and listening to more gossip tells us, ‘all I want is this.’ The relationship has a myriad of complications but it is one which, no matter the past, they are bound to. What could be sadder than Barton’s primal cry of love for a woman who has caused her so much pain: ‘oh, I loved her, my mother!’?