Many readers who discover an author they enjoy, read everything that novelist writes. Such has been the case for me with Elizabeth Strout who achieved fame through her Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge, an engaging novel that has since been made into a mini-series. When My Name Is Lucy Barton was published this year, I eagerly placed myself on the list at my local library to wait my turn for a copy.
Both novels deal with the relationship between a mother and child; Olive the mother who has difficulty expressing her love for a son, and Lucy the daughter whose mother cannot communicate her love. And both books display the masterly use of language that characterizes the author. But while the latter novel is an engaging read, it is not a likely candidate for another Pulitzer, despite the fact that it has made bestseller lists.
Much of the narrative takes place as Lucy Barton is recuperating from an operation in a hospital while her husband and two young children are at home. At her husband’s request, Lucy’s estranged mother comes to spend a few days with her daughter in the hospital room.
However, the novel’s tension results not from Lucy’s present health issues, but from the back-story, her childhood living with a family impoverished both financially and emotionally. She, her sister and her brother often found themselves in abusive situations at home, perhaps because their parents were themselves the victims of cycles of poverty and subsequently more concerned with survival than the finer points of nurturing their young. And the kids faced ridicule at school, as they were relegated to the bottom of the social pecking order.
The novel succeeds as a character study and as a case history. Because Lucy, despite the deprivations of her childhood, manages to find a limited success as a wife and mother and as an author, the story could be a happily-ever-after tale. Unfortunately she cannot shed her past, and in some respect, the sins of the mother are visited upon the daughter.
My Name Is Lucy Barton is a quick read, more a novella than a novel. But not only is the slice-of-life plotline unsettling, so is the resolution. Throughout Lucy’s tale are hints of another shoe about to drop, but it doesn’t. And even though many of us are put off by the fluffy bow ending of unrealistic romanticizing, we still look for a satisfying sense of closure.
Fans of Elizabeth Strout will want to read her latest novel even if it is not representative of her best work. They will find something to enjoy with a relatively short investment in time.
My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout / 191 pages, Random House, 2016.