By: Elizabeth Strout
Publisher: Random House
Publication Date: 1/12/2016
My Rating: 4 Stars
A new book by Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout is cause for celebration. Her bestselling novels, including Olive Kitteridge and The Burgess Boys, have illuminated our most tender relationships. Now, in My Name Is Lucy Barton, this extraordinary writer shows how a simple hospital visit becomes a portal to the most tender relationship of all—the one between mother and daughter.
Lucy Barton is recovering slowly from what should have been a simple operation. Her mother, to whom she hasn't spoken for many years, comes to see her. Gentle gossip about people from Lucy's childhood in Amgash, Illinois, seems to reconnect them, but just below the surface lie the tension and longing that have informed every aspect of Lucy's life: her escape from her troubled family, her desire to become a writer, her marriage, her love for her two daughters. Knitting this powerful narrative together is the brilliant storytelling voice of Lucy herself: keenly observant, deeply human, and truly unforgettable.
A special thank you to Random House and NetGalley for an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Elizabeth Strout delivers a deeply insightful and absorbing contemporary novel, MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON, a woman recovering from an illness and trying to make peace with her mother and her damaged past. From a first person narrative, her story comes to life, during a hospital stay in connection with her writing--past, present, and learning to live with the cards you are dealt—Imperfect Love. Resilience.
“Don’t make the mistake of blurring the line between fiction and truth.” ---Sarah Payne
The main protagonist, Lucy Barton is now a writer and reflects back to a time in the early eighties when a routine appendectomy created other infections, leading to a lengthy hospital stay.
As the novel opens, Lucy Barton, a novelist is telling a story—pull up a chair. From small town rural Illinois, a writer’s conference in Arizona, to New York.
Lucy grew up with books, her only real friend—this was her escape. She gets caught up in her characters, providing her friendship. Due to this influence, she became a novelist. She could then tell her stories, so no one would be alone. Others would have stories, as she had --to get her through the rough patches of life.
Lucy, in her mid-30s, wife and mother of two daughters has become ill after a surgical mishap and a lingering infection—with a lengthy hospital stay in Manhattan. Away from her family and loved ones. Her husband, William, and their two young daughters seldom visit, and she’s lonely --with time on her hands to reflect. Unexpectedly, she receives a visit from her estranged mother. Her mother has never been on an airplane or taken a taxi. Lucy’s husband called the mother, and paid for the trip.
Awkwardly, her mother remains for five days at her bedside. Without sleeping, in between short naps, Lucy begins reaching out to her cold withdrawn mother. Instead of talking about real things, her mother tells stories and gossip of others in the town. She does not acknowledge her son in law or her grandchildren, nor Lucy's life. Harsh truths are revealed from poverty, abuse, a damaged family, and a better life.
Readers learn the of Lucy’s childhood in rural Illinois; the poverty, the shame and her loneliness. From their father’s past, abuse and his own secrets and demons. The parents had little concern or care of her desire for better things, ambitions, or a higher education. They were narrow minded, bigoted, and uneducated. Her guidance counselor took her to college—a full scholarship. Her parents did not seem excited or proud of her achievements. No acknowledgment. This saddened her. Her mother seemed emotionless, even today.
Lucy is desperate to create a bond with her mother. She craves her love and attention, even after being closed out. Lucy has a new life, escaping the bonds of poverty; this creates even more distance between the strained relationship of mother and daughter.
As Lucy attempts to make sense of the past, she also reflects on how her past has affected her choices, and her relationships. Possibly different ways to connect? In the nine week hospital stay in the 1980s, Lucy carries the world on her shoulders. Her despair, her troubled childhood, the strained relationship with her parents, the fear of dying, and her relationships, with the two daughters.
There have been many instrumental people in her life, including her doctor, her teachers, and Jeremy, a Frenchman, and her husband, William. There is much to learn from a girl coming from a very poverty stricken family, and moving to New York to become a novelist. From her father’s arrival in America as a prisoner of war, a veteran of WWII, plus the overall mental cruelty of her childhood. Her mother never protected or supported them.
The three children have issues: Lucy’s sister is married (not a happy one with five children), and her disturbed gay brother, now an adult who reads children’s books, spending the night to farm animals on the eve of their slaughter.
Through all the challenges and obstacles, she still becomes a successful author. Escaping the close-minded upbringing, to a liberal New York thinker. From Nazi, AIDs, the war, and outside forces and influences of literature, books, and authors, including Sarah Payne--authors and fictional characters they have created. As Lucy learns how to write her own story as fiction, she receives advice from various friends and mentors.
Her friend Jeremy, tells her, "You must be ruthless, Lucy." Novelist and teacher Sarah Payne says to Lucy, "If you find yourself protecting anyone as you write this piece ...remember this: You're not doing it right.”
Told in short chapters, the novel may be short in length; however, long in meaning—a thought-provoking emotional novel---Can you really understand another person? Family human dynamics. How incompletely we know one another.
Well-developed characters and beautiful writing, the author captures the essence of human longings, yearning, fears, pain, despair, wounds and need for love and acceptance. How do you come back stronger from a damaged family? From family secrets, domestic, social and class struggles, and mother-daughter relationships---a heartbreaking yet engrossing read.
Interesting, siblings from the same environment take different paths. Some are stronger, more driven, some are survivors, some rise above the past and the traumas, and build a different life for their future, while others are left, swallowed up in their own self-pity. Resenting others with a better life.
Constant striving for connection, understanding, and acceptance. Finding a balance. Redemption. Since Lucy is the only member to flee the damaged life, yet she still remains hopeful, forgiving, and a lovable talented woman.
In addition to the electronic reading copy, I also purchased the audiobook, and narrator Kimberly Farr delivered a moving performance of Lucy’s journey. A memorable character and heroine, you think of, long after the book ends. An ideal choice for book clubs and further discussions.
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an 2016 LibraryReads selection
Jan 2016 Indie Next selection
Praise for Elizabeth Strout
“Strout has a magnificent gift for humanizing characters.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“What truly makes Strout exceptional . . . is the perfect balance she achieves between the tides of story and depths of feeling.” —Chicago Tribune
“[Strout] constructs her stories with rich irony and moments of genuine surprise and intense emotion.” —USA Today
“Strout animates the ordinary with an astonishing force.” —The New Yorker
“[Strout's] themes are how incompletely we know one another, how ‘desperately hard every person in the world [is] working to get what they need,' and the redemptive power in little things—a shared memory, a shock of tulips.”—People
"Fiction with the condensed power of poetry: Strout deepens her mastery with each new work, and her psychological acuity has never required improvement." ---Kirkus Reviews
Elizabeth Strout was born in Portland, Maine, and grew up in small towns in Maine and New Hampshire. From a young age she was drawn to writing things down, keeping notebooks that recorded the quotidian details of her days. She was also drawn to books, and spent hours of her youth in the local library lingering among the stacks of fiction. During the summer months of her childhood she played outdoors, either with her brother, or, more often, alone, and this is where she developed her deep and abiding love of the physical world: the seaweed covered rocks along the coast of Maine, and the woods of New Hampshire with its hidden wildflowers.
During her adolescent years, Strout continued writing avidly, having conceived of herself as a writer from early on. She read biographies of writers, and was already studying – on her own – the way American writers, in particular, told their stories. Poetry was something she read and memorized; by the age of sixteen was sending out stories to magazines. Her first story was published when she was twenty-six.
Strout attended Bates College, graduating with a degree in English in 1977. Two years later, she went to Syracuse University College of Law, where she received a law degree along with a Certificate in Gerontology. She worked briefly for Legal Services, before moving to New York City, where she became an adjunct in the English Department of Borough of Manhattan Community College. By this time she was publishing more stories in literary magazines and Redbook and Seventeen. Juggling the needs that came with raising a family and her teaching schedule, she found a few hours each day to work on her writing. Website