I have NO idea what made me pick up My Name is Lucy Barton. I didn’t even have it on my “To-Read” shelf on Goodreads! Or rather, I did have it on my To-Read shelf, but somewhere along the line I had taken it off in one of my periodic purges. Perhaps I just wanted something short to read (it’s 191 pages in hardcover.) Behind on my Goodreads Challenge, I probably wanted the feeling of accomplishment that finishing a book can bring. Once I started reading this, I didn’t want to stop. I just loved it.
This is a small story, told in snippets, of Lucy’s time in the hospital battling a serious infection, and how her emotionally and physically distant mother came to stay with her there for a short time. It’s breathtaking in its spareness, with small moments of heartbreaking beauty surfacing from Lucy’s memories of that time. We also get glimpses of her horrible, impoverished Midwestern childhood – just enough to show us their tragedy but not enough for the reader to become overwhelmed.
There are times now, and my life has changed so completely, that I think back on the early years and I find myself thinking: It was not that bad. Perhaps it was not. But there are times too – unexpected – when walking down a sunny sidewalk, or watching the top of a tree bend in the wind, or seeing a November sky close down over the East River, I am suddenly filled with the knowledge of darkness so deep that a sound might escape from my mouth and I will step into the nearest clothing store and talk with a stranger about the shape of sweaters newly arrived. This must be the way most of us maneuver through the world, half knowing, half not, visited by memories that can’t possibly be true.
She escaped her upbringing because a teacher introduced her to reading, and she fell in love with books. Also, she stayed as long as she could at school each day because it was warm, and her house had no heat. She earned a full scholarship to a college in Chicago, and when she came home for Thanksgiving, she couldn’t fall asleep at night because she “was afraid I would wake and find myself once more in this house and I would be in this house forever, and it seemed unbearable to me.” We get a glimpse of a horrific incident between her father and her brother when the brother was caught wearing his mother’s clothes, and we are told of times that Lucy was locked inside the family truck, before she was old enough for school, either as punishment or as a substitute for daycare. Gilbert expertly portrays a young child’s terror at being left alone and thinking that no one is coming back to save her.
But this book sounds so bleak when I write of these things! Where is the beauty, you ask? What made you love this book, Laila? Well, the beauty is in the small ways in which Lucy and her mother fumble and try to connect while she’s in the hospital, the gentleness of Lucy’s doctor, the way Lucy falls in love with New York City, in the way she writes of her first husband and their early days. It’s in the way Lucy clawed her way out of a horrible life. Strout is simply a master as gutting the reader with the simplest of images and the most precise sentences.
What else made this book resonate so strongly for me? Well, maybe it was the feeling I got while reading it, one of intense longing for my childhood. My childhood was pretty good overall, no traumas like the ones Lucy faced. My parents and extended family always loved me, of that I never once doubted. But my parents are divorced, and I admit that if they told me today that they would get back together I would be overjoyed. I know that my relationship with my mother has never fully recovered. This is a story of mothers and daughters, a very specific, troubled mother-daughter relationship, but a reader like me can feel echoes of my own past here. I also felt the nostalgia for the places of my childhood, like my grandparents’ house, which is no longer in the family, as they have both passed away. So much of my life was spent there in middle Tennessee, in summers and on holidays, and now it’s just gone. We have no reason to travel there any more, and it breaks my heart. Lucy’s past was awful, but there were moments when she seemed like a little girl rather than a grown woman with kids, and she just wanted the security and reassurance of her mother’s love, like any of us want that from time to time. What was most heartbreaking was the sense that she was worth more than the tiny scraps her mother was able to give her.
This was a book that connected deeply with me, but I’ve read Goodreads reviews and blog reviews where this was not the case. So I don’t know – maybe it will resonate with you or may not. I love that it took me by surprise, and that I randomly picked it up after disregarding it for so long. I devoured it in two days, and still I wanted more, but I also felt like I knew Lucy enough to see her as a fully formed character. She was doing the best with what she’d been given – she had flaws, but she also has great strength. (I haven’t even mentioned that she became a writer! There’s this whole side story line with a New York City author who inspires Lucy, it’s beautifully rendered.) I immediately checked out Strout’s follow-up that came out this year, Anything is Possible. I’m trying to not get my hopes up too much, trying to let it have room to surprise me in a good way as well. My Name is Lucy Barton is going on my upcoming year-end Best Of List.
Have you read this, or any other of Strout’s novels? What was the last book that surprised you in a good way?