Elizabeth Strout: My Name is Lucy Barton

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My Name is Lucy Barton is a short and quite gripping novella that was long listed for the 2016 Man Booker Prize.

It tells the story of a midwestern girl, Lucy Barton, now living in New York. She is married and has two children, but is ill in hospital, and mostly alone: her husband has a phobia about hospitals and rarely visits. He pays for the protagonist’s mother to fly in and care for her daughter, and the book mostly concerns the short period in which the girl’s mother sits by her bedside and looks after her.

As she lies in hospital and talks with her mother, Lucy Barton reflects on her life, and especially on her childhood. The book is really a series of these memories retold in short sharp chapters of brief, yet vivid and detailed description.

From the hospital window Lucy can see the Chrysler building, an icon of New York city and a reminder of the distance between herself and her childhood home. The mother has never flown before and has no knowledge of, or interest in modern culture. Her own husband was psychologically damaged in the the second world war, and never recovered, inflicting the consequences of his own guilt and pain onto the next generation.

Lucy grew up in cultural and financial poverty, living in a cold garage and a victim of bullying at school.  She was also the victim of abuse, and we are told that she was regularly locked into the car whilst her parents worked. There are more explicit comments, but these are not developed in detail.

From the dialogue and commentary it is clear that Lucy’s mother knew nothing of these incidents, or if she did was in denial. Lucy would like to ask, but never has the courage.

But this is a book about love and about dignity. We see the powerful love Lucy has for her mother, a love that its clearly reciprocated. The book revolves around other moments of tenderness and compassion, including the doctor who calls regularly, even at weekends, and goes easy on his medical bills. There are others in the mid-western town, more fortunate than Lucy’s family, who show her compassion and sympathy, including a teacher who chides the class for laughing at her, insisting that all children must be treated equally and with kindness.

We also learn about the fates of some of Lucy’s childhood friends, their selfishness or foolishness, their broken marriages and disappointments. This is a book in which human failings are writ large but with compassion and sympathy.

We are given brief glimpses of Lucy’s life away from the mid-west: relationships that failed or never matured, her own marriage and her love for her children, her encounter with a professional writer, an inept creative writing tutor who nevertheless didn’t manage to stop Lucy becoming a professional writer herself.

In the end Lucy has grown into an independent and confident writer, a modern, metropolitan woman.

Strout is not judgemental, and there is sympathy here for even the most unsympathetic of characters – her damaged father, the old schoolfriend who abandoned her husband, or the self centred and fashion conscious lecturer in art with whom she had a brief fling as a student. The criticisms are subtly communicated, the judgements clear but understated.

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