My Name is Lucy Barton – Elizabeth Strout

As well as introducing me to some debut and/or brand new to me authors reading all of this years Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist has brought me a couple of authors that I have been meaning to read for a while. The first of those is Elizabeth Strout whose Pulitzer prize winning Olive Ketteridge I have been meaning to read for ages and ages since the much missed Granny Savidge Reads read it and raved about it years ago. Her latest, My Name is Lucy Barton, was also one of the most ‘guessed’ and rated books before the official longlist came out and so I was intrigued.

9780241248775

Penguin Books, 2016, hardback, fiction, 206 pages, kindly sent by the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction

After a slow recovery from what should have been a relatively simple operation and recuperation Lucy Barton wakes one night to find her mother, who she has not seen for years, sat at the end of her bed. This is something that Lucy finds wonderful, baffling, terrifying, thrilling and worrying, how do these two women relate to each other after so many years apart and after so much has gone unsaid?

“Hi, Lucy,” she said. Her voice sounded shy but urgent. She leaned forward and squeezed my foot through the sheet. “Hi, Wizzle,” she said. I had not seen my mother for years, and I kept staring at her; I could not figure out why she looked so different.
“Mom, how did you get here?” I asked.
“Oh, I got on an airplane.” She wiggled her fingers, and I knew that there was too much emotion, for us. So I waved back, and lay flat. “I think you’ll be alright,” she added, in the same shy-soundingbut urgent voice. “I haven’t had any dreams.”

After an initial read of the book, which at a compact 200 pages can be done in one sitting, it would be easy to simply say this was a concentrated and heightened fable of the relationship between a mother and daughter. In many ways it is. It is also much more than that as Lucy’s mother’s random appearance brings back many memories and stories of her youth, many of which are unsettling rather than happy. It could also be seen as a novel of a women’s journey to becoming a writer, what inspired her and what compelled her from a young age (mainly escapism through books). Now I have to say that I am not a fan of novels about novelists, so many clichés, however as with Graham Swift’s recent Mothering Sunday, this won me round as it isn’t the focus of the book, rather another layer.

My teacher saw that I loved reading, and she gave me books, even grown-up books, and I read them. And then later in high school I still read books, when my homework was done, in the warm school. But the books brought me things. This is my point. They made me feel less alone. This is my point. And I thought: I will write and people will not feel so alone! (But it was my secret. Even when I met my husband I didn’t tell him right away. I couldn’t take myself seriously. Except that I did. I took myself – secretly, secretly – very seriously! I knew I was a writer. I didn’t know how hard it would be. But no one knows that; and that does not matter.)

What the real focus of the book is actually tries to evade our eyeline directly unless we catch it unsuspectingly and that is the story of Lucy’s childhood which she doesn’t seem to want to tell us about. This also happens with Lucy’s failing marriage, yet unlike that which she can hide her memories from childhood start coming to the fore without her expecting them or being able to lock them away again as quickly as she would like. We soon discover that Lucy grew up living in impoverished and difficult circumstances, people thought she and her family were trash and they became outcasts, something she wanted to escape.

When I was a child, our family went to the Congregational church. We were outcasts there as much as anywhere; even the Sunday school teacher ignored us. Once I came late to the class, the chairs were all taken. The teacher said, “Just sit on the floor, Lucy.”

Yet as we read on there is another layer amongst that. Deep down are memories of really dark times not inflicted on the family but by them, we only get some glimpses of them but they are there all the same. Strout, through Lucy’s seeming denial, leaves it for us the reader to work out what they are and if this is why Lucy Barton has become so estranged. It also asks the questions as to whether blood is thicker than water and how we cope with having to love someone as they are our parent, with all their failings and even with some serious hatred towards them for some things they have done. How do we then cope with that when they are gone?

There is also something slightly fairytale (both the happy and the horrid elements) and surreal amongst the cracks of this novel too. I love fairytales and you may think I can spot them in every book I read, not always honest but I could in this one. First for me was sudden arrival of Lucy’s mother, for a while I spent quite a lot of the beginning thinking she was a ghost or possibly a post surgery drug induced hallucination, especially when she starts to talk about having not had any bad dreams so all will be well. Then there is the slight Cinderella element of rags to riches. Mostly though it was the monsters lurking in a woman’s memories that made me feel like that, we mainly glimpse them, we know they are real and yet they seem other because of the way Lucy is dealing with them, or not. Naturally this compelled me further.

My Name is Lucy Barton is a deceptive book, both in its size and in the story it tells. I devoured it in a single sitting and it affected me, however since I have read it the affect has grown and grown and bothered me more and more. It is the kind of book that you need to read, digest, walk away from, digest some more and then at some point go back to. It’s affect has grown on me as much as it has grown in my estimation the more and more distance I have had from it. It’s a book that lingers much longer than you anticipate. Looks like I need to head to some more of Elizabeth Strout’s books now doesn’t it?

10 Comments

Filed under Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, Baileys Bearded Book Club, Elizabeth Strout, Penguin Books, Review

10 responses to “My Name is Lucy Barton – Elizabeth Strout

  1. David

    As I mentioned when you were guessing at the longlist, I thought this was superb, the best new book I’ve read so far this year (I too also loved Swift’s “Mothering Sunday”) and I’d say Strout’s best book to date. On the subject of Strout can I recommend not just her “Olive Kitteridge” story collection, but also her debut novel “Amy & Isabelle”? I wasn’t such a fan of “Abide with Me” and “The Burgess Boys” (she seems to alternate between brilliant books and ho-hum ones).

  2. happyphantom

    I really liked this book. Very disturbing and dark, from the mysterious prolonged illness to the unpredictable and sometimes sinister mother. There’s a lot hinted at that is never explained. Never considered the fairytale element but it makes sense Simon.

  3. i had the same questions buzzing through my head about the mother’s appearance – was she real or a hallucination. As you say this is a richly layered novel that will reward re-reading.

  4. Andrew Cole

    A really intriguing read which at time was very disconcerting as Lucy reverts to child like in the presence of her strange mother, listening to her mother telling stories of people from home who meet odd fates almost as dark bed time tales whilst her mother addresses her by her childhood nickname. I also liked the writers workshop scenes. It does make me reflect on how much can be achieved in a book of 200 pages or so. When I look on my bookshelf at my fading orange penguins there are so many greats that are in that region.
    Great review again, thanks.

  5. Waste not a moment and read Olive.

  6. FeminstsCreate

    Well. . . at the risk of disagreeing with everyone on the planet, I thought this book was average at best. Why? Not sure really. It was crafted beautifully and the plot device of the long hospital stay was perfect to showcase what the author had to say. Normally, I adore books that unpack old memories and rearrange them. But it seemed as if I’ve read this book before many times (and I felt the same way about Improbability of Love.)

    Give me a Rosaleen (Green Road) or a Morwenna (House at the Edge) anytime. Maybe the protagonist was too nice ; )

    (p.s. am almost finished with Hawthorne Time and will try to get to either Ruby or Rush Oh by the 11th. My total, alas, will only be 10 for BP longlist and here they are in order with best going first:

    House on the Edge of the World
    Green Road
    God in Ruins
    Portable Veblen
    Girl at War
    Pleasantville
    A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding
    Lucy Barton
    Improbability of Love (fun story but writing not my fav)

    Love, love, loving At Hawthorne Time–almost finished and will be nearer the top
    Will start Rush Oh or Ruby this weekend

    Cheers, Ellen

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  9. coolteenreads

    I so agree with what you say about this book. I read it over a couple of train journeys and marvelled at just how much wisdom and insight the author managed to impart in so few chapters. Spare writing at its very best with no tricksy plot devices. Just beautiful clear prose that told a simple story in a clever, multi-layered way. Loved it, loved it, loved it.
    I also thought that the mother might be a ghost and I desperately wanted to know about what made the whole family tick. I hadn’t thought about the fairytale aspect but that does make a lot of sense.
    I would probably never have picked this book up if it hadn’t been longlisted ( a plain, unimaginative cover with an uninspiring title) but I’m so glad I did read it.
    Rushing to my local library tomorrow in the hope that they have Olive Kitteridge.

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