Twitter Account

Follow me on Twitter (@DCYakabuski) and Instagram (@doreenyakabuski).

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Today's New Release - Review of "My Name is Lucy Barton" by Elizabeth Strout

5 Stars
Lucy Barton is a writer telling about her life; she focuses on a time in the mid-1980s when she spent nine weeks in a hospital for a post-surgical infection.  Her mother, whom she hadn’t seen for years, came to New York and spent five days with her.  What emerges is the story of a mother-daughter relationship.

Lucy’s career choice tells us a lot about her.  She decided to become a writer when she read a book in the third grade:  The book features a girl named Tilly “who was strange and unattractive because she was dirty and poor, and the girls were not nice to Tilly.”  Tilly’s life is a mirror of Lucy’s childhood.  Her family was so poor that there were no books and no television in the home and often insufficient food.  She was shunned by classmates; she was so lonely that she thought of a tree as a friend:  “Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth”.  The books she is able to read at school made her feel less alone, “And I thought:  I will write and people will not feel so alone!”

The mother’s visit reveals so much about the mother-daughter relationship.  The two women gossip about slight acquaintances back in Amgash, Illinois, people like Marilyn Somebody whose names they don’t even remember.  What they do not discuss is telling:   Lucy’s father who has times when he becomes “very anxious and not in control of himself,” Lucy’s husband whom her mother has met only once, and Lucy’s two daughters whom their grandmother has never met and never asks about. 

As they talk, Lucy remembers other events from her childhood which they do not mention:  Lucy’s being struck “impulsively and vigorously,” her being locked in a truck, her brother’s discomfiting behaviour.  Sometimes she is “filled with the knowledge of darkness so deep” that she thinks her memories “can’t possibly be true.”  Certainly some of the events from her childhood are shocking, but if Lucy even tries to discuss them, her mother shuts down the conversation. 

There is so much that Lucy’s mother can’t give her.  Her mother “could never say the words I love you” and Lucy has been so starved for affection that she loves everyone who shows her the slightest kindness.  She seems to realize this:  “the pain we children clutch to our chests, how it lasts our whole lifetime, with longings so large you can’t even weep.”   Lucy says that her husband repeatedly tells her that, “I did not understand that I could be loved, was lovable.”  In the hospital, Lucy wants her mother “to ask about my life” but those questions are never asked; when Lucy tries to talk about her life, her mother lets her know she isn’t interested:  “My mother looked at me, then looked out the window, and it was a long time before she said [anything].”  Not once does she express pride in her daughter.

Yet it seems that her mother does love her daughter.  Lucy’s writing instructor, commenting on the novel we are reading, tells Lucy, “’This is a story about a mother who loves her daughter.  Imperfectly.  Because we all love imperfectly.’”  And Lucy obviously loves her mother.  The presence of her mother gives her great consolation.  She speaks of loving her mother’s voice and hearing her mother speak her pet name “made me feel warm and liquid-filled as though all my tension had been a solid thing and now was not.”  Lucy even finds similarities between herself and her mother:  “So I was like my mother, we did not want to be judged by what we read” and “that is how sensitive we both were, my mother and I.”  She admits that “I don’t know what my mother remembered” and “I don’t know what my mother meant” so she seems to suggest that she is unwilling to judge her mother and has forgiven her.  She knows her mother could never say she loved her and “It was all right.”  She also acknowledges that “No one in this world comes from nothing” and though her family may have been “a really unhealthy family”, she also sees “our roots were twisted so tenaciously around one another’s hearts.”

This is a short novel, an easy read with concise, lucid prose.  It is compelling with some very poignant scenes and is so realistic that it took my breath away.  Lucy’s mentor tells her that the job of “a writer of fiction was to report on the human condition, to tell us who we are and what we think and what we do.”  Strout does just that.  This is a novel I will revisit.

Note:  I received an ARC of the book from the publisher via NetGalley.