By Elizabeth Strout
Random House, January 2016, 193 pages
Genre: Domestic fiction
This book is not for everyone, but if you liked “Olive Kitteridge,” by this same author (which won her a Pulitzer), or “Someone,” by Alice McDermott, chances are that you will enjoy this book immensely. It is a masterpiece, a book that you know you will re-read and notice nuances that you missed on your first visit with these people. I read it in one sitting, too engrossed to put the book down. Plus, it is less than 200 pages.
Lucy Barton is a 30-something married mother of two very young daughters who entered the hospital for a routine surgery only to develop a series of complications that extend her stay to nine weeks. Near the middle of her stay, her mother shows up from Amgash, Illinois, a tiny burg near the Rock River in the northwestern part of the state. Lucy’s husband William called her and paid her airfare. He had offered to pick her up at LaGuardia, but she insisted she would take a taxi. Astonished to see her mother walk into her hospital room, she was even more astonished over the next five days when her mother refused to leave the chair at the foot of her bed. The nurses offered a cot, but Mrs. Barton preferred the chair for her sleep which consisted of a string of catnaps throughout the day and night.
The love between the mother and daughter is evident, despite not having seen each other since just before Lucy married William. They share a sense of fun and nickname the three nurses who do the majority of Lucy’s caretaking. Cookie is skinny and has a crisp attitude; Toothache has a sad affect; and Serious Child is the favorite of both of them. When Lucy is taken out of the room for an emergency CT scan in the middle of the night, Mrs. Barton manages to find her way through this behemoth of hallways, elevators and formidable personnel to be standing there waiting for her daughter when she exits the CT machine. Lucy is not only amazed that her mother was able to do this, but amazed as well that she herself was so happy to see her there.
Strout reveals the humanity of her characters instead of telling us in a narrative. For example, we learn the differences of the mother and daughter’s personality and attitudes during a conversation about Kathie Nicely, a local lady who frequently used Mrs. Barton’s dressmaking services. Lucy asks for a retelling of the story in which Kathie, a mother of three daughters, married to a successful man, living a comfortable life, falls in love with one of her daughter’s teachers. After leaving her family for this man, he announces that he does not want to be with her. Her husband does not want her back and promptly divorces her. The children sided with their father to such an extent that when the eldest daughter married, Kathie invited the usually-shunned-from-polite-society Bartons to the wedding just to have someone to sit with and talk to. Lucy’s assessment of the story was that he should have taken her back and he would be sorry, while her mother opined that Kathie was probably the one who was sorry. In her mind, Kathie was restless, always wanting more instead of appreciating what she had, but it was because she was an only child and they were just self centered. To Lucy, Kathie was just nice.
The Bartons were extremely poor and lived in a very rural area outside of the small town of Amgash. Mr. Barton was an excellent mechanic but was always being fired, then rehired, because of his outbursts of temper. A World War II veteran, he brought the war home with him, still haunted by his experiences in the Battle ofthe Bulge and in German villages. Mrs. Barton brought in some extra by sewing, but they lived at subsistence level in a garage on Lucy’s great-uncle’s property until he died and they moved into his house. At age ten, she finally had running water and a working toilet. But the house, like the garage, was never warm.
Strout does an amazing job of addressing poverty and what it does to people. Even if able to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and “make good” by getting an education and acquiring a good job or profession, a childhood of poverty wreaks havoc on one’s psyche. Besides lack of money, Lucy and her siblings were subjected to unrelenting teasing at school, much of it directed at their poor personal hygiene. Lucy was never warm at home and would stay at school to do her homework not only for warmth in the cold weather but because she could concentrate there and organize her mind. Her perfect marks got her a fully paid scholarship to college and a ticket to a life outside Amgash, Illinois.
She met William in college, and after graduation they moved to the East Coast to be nearer his widowed mother. They lived in the West Village and the AIDS epidemic of that time is mentioned several times in this story, with note made of the gaunt men Lucy encounters walking down the street or even while in the hospital. It was during college and her life with William that Lucy realized extent of the stark poverty of her experience, not just her family’s socioeconomic status. She did not know social graces, had never been to a baseball game until William took her to Yankee Stadium, had no experience with television or movies. When she tried out a new recipe from a cooking magazine and sautéing a clove of garlic, William had to tell her she was sautéing a bulb of garlic, that it had to be peeled and opened to get the cloves inside.
Mainly, of course, this book is about relationships, especially mother and daughter; Lucy’s with her own mother, and Lucy with her daughters. When Lucy becomes a successful writer, we see how her relationship with her sister Vicky changes with the latter constantly demanding money for one thing or another and Lucy guiltily never denying a request, as if she needs to apologize for “getting out” and being prosperous. Ah, siblings!
The book is formatted without chapter titles. Each chapter consists of just a few pages. All the sentences are short until the final chapter which consists of one short sentence and one very long sentence. This technique works well because Strout does not tell the story chronologically, but meanders through time.
If you are interested in human relationships, you will enjoy this book. Although mother-daughter is the major focus, plenty of attention is paid to the father in the families, the siblings, the neighbors both known and unknown, and strangers on the sidewalk. Lucy is a writer and so everything is of interest to her and she does not miss much. There is plenty of angst and forgiveness to go around in this story. The only love you can give or receive is imperfect.
“My Name Is Lucy Barton” is proof that Elizabeth Strout deserves all the accolades and awards she has received during her writing career thus far. I have no doubt this book will earn her a few more.
Rating: 4.75/5.0. Hardcover and audio copies available at the Collier County Public Library.
Maggie Gust has been an avid reader all her life. Her past includes working as a teacher, as well as various occupations in the healthcare field. She shares a hometown, Springfield, Illinois, with Abraham Lincoln, but Florida has been her home since 1993. Genealogy, reading, movies and writing are among her favorite activities. She is self-employed and works from her Naples home. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or maggiesbookinblog.com.