Book Review: My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

book - my name is lucy bartonA Guest Post written by Mary Le Bon

My Name is Lucy Barton is a beautiful book which tenderly describes the relationship between a young mother and her own mother whom she hasn’t seen for many years. The narrator is in hospital for a period of weeks and her mother arrives unexpectedly and sits at the foot of her bed for five long days, catnapping but steadfastly refusing the offer of a bed. The stilted and very realistic conversation between the two reveals Lucy’s impoverished and, at times, traumatic childhood as they share snippets of memories about people they have known and what has happened to them.  

The unexpected comfort Lucy finds in hearing her mother’s voice, whatever she is talking about, reminded me of my own pleasure in talking with my mother, and of the stilted conversations we had when she was in hospital for a few weeks and I visited nearly every day.

A child’s acute pain in holding tightly on to painful memories and resentments is a theme of the book and Lucy is aware of it in her own daughters as well as in herself. But there is also a sense that forgiveness is not only possible but desirable, and that it may come with time, but doesn’t come for everyone.

Marriage, relationships and their problems are another theme, and there is the recognition that women used to stay in a marriage however unhappy, whereas nowadays they would not. Lucy examines her own marriage sensitively and thoughtfully, recognising the happy memories, the kindness, generosity and hard work of her husband, the way she valued their family life when the children were small. But there is also the gulf between them, the things she is unable to talk to him about, his inability to understand the intensity of her grief.

Strout examines loneliness through Lucy’s thoughts: the loneliness of a suffering child who is unable to tell of what they are going through, the loneliness of long hours alone in a hospital bed with only brief visits from nurses to break up the day, the loneliness after a relationship has broken down. Anger is also contemplated, both as a natural reaction to things we cannot control, and in excess, when it results in hatred, humiliation of others and cruelty.

Characters are described by their actions: the kindness of the doctor in the sensitive way he gives her privacy – putting the curtain round, and the gentleness of his hands on her wound. Their inability to act is also observed; a faint wave of her fingers is the nearest Lucy’s mother gets to giving her a kiss.

Strout also examines the effects of post-traumatic stress on different people – how this affects not only their lives but also the lives of their family and even strangers.

Mainly located in New York, the view seen through the hospital window is important to Lucy and is particularly loved by night, with its myriad lights against the dark sky. This is contrasted with memories from childhood, of an isolated house surrounded by cornfields which stretch out towards the horizon and a vast expanse of sky.

The chapters are very short and repetition is used effectively to show the protagonist clarifying her reflections. In this extract, at the start of the AIDS epidemic, Lucy has just confessed to her friend, Jeremy, her envy of the two emaciated men they had seen walking down the street together:

“Lonely was the first flavour I had tasted in my life, and it was always there hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me. He saw this that day, I think. And he was kind…He could easily have said, “Are you crazy, they’re dying!” But he did not say that, because he understood that loneliness about me. This is what I want to think. This is what I think.”

The book is gripping and easy to read, and I found it thought-provoking and intensely moving.

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