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 lay 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.
There’s the plot for you. I can’t say I enjoyed this short novel very much. I was bored most of the time and only stayed with it because it was so short.
To me the dominant theme was loneliness - and I would say Strout succeeded with giving a portrait of a woman who have to battle estrangement - being brought up in a home without much love and intimacy. At least while reading I felt the loneliness in my bones. The book is very cold - but maybe that’s exactly what the author wanted to achieve. So I’m a little conflicted as to the rating.
Could be a good one to throw into a book-club - it’s short and I think people are either going to love or hate it.
Oh, and then it’s on some book-list this year. Hmmm…am I getting into trouble here?
I was not much of a fan of Strout's Olive Kitteridge, and I did like this one better. Strout is a very fine writer, very insightful into her characters' minds, emotions, and motivations. But she seems to be drawn to unlikable--even mean-- characters who spend their lives trying to hide some lack in their own life experience that causes them to hurt others who don't deserve it. And for me, this gets a bit tiresome. It's not that I'm looking for Pollyanna all the time; in fact, I'd be bored with that. It's just that it takes more for me to empathize with a very unlikable character than what she offers.
As the story begins, Lucy is young woman in her early thirties, in hosptial recovering from what should have been a simple surgery, but unfortunately some sort of infection prolongs Lucy's stay in the hospital for nine weeks. As Lucy says" I had a husband and two small daughters at home ; I missed the girls terribly and I worried about them so much I was afraid it was making me sicker." p4 Her husband hates hospitals, so he and the children visit Lucy only a couple of times. Instead, husband William arranges for Lucy's mom to visit her in hospital.
Lucy and her family of origin have been estranged since Lucy's marriage to William. Lucy grew up in poverty, with parents who were abusive and unable to express love to their three children. Lucy was able to escape this life due to her success and love of school . While in hospital, Lucy and her mother spend five tender but strained days together, and chat about the past and present. Lucy is a soft , gentle person , very attuned to others' emotions. Upon her mother's arrival to the hospital , Lucy asks " Mom, how did you get here?" "Oh I got on an airplane." She ( Lucy's mother ) wiggles her fingers and I knew that was too much emotion for us. So I waved back and lay flat." p7.
The essence of My Name is Lucy Barton can be summarized by this quote about her family of origin :" I kept thinking how the five of us had a really unhealthy family , but I saw too how our roots were twisted so tenaciously around one another's hearts." p167
A story that echoes so many of our family relationships, how much we care, how much we love and long to be loved, but so often we do so very imperfectly.
A beautiful, tender, non-sentimental read that really resonated with me.
4. 5 stars.
The beauty of this book lies in how much Strout can pack into a single paragraph. As Lucy lies in her hospital bed, she remembers her childhood living in the midwest in family so poor they lived some years in a relative's garage, crammed up against fiberglass insulation. It was an abusive and non-nurturing environment, and Lucy contemplates how her childhood affects how she sees the world, and her relationships. Written when she's older, looking back on that time she spent ill and alone, she also sees how this was also the time when the AIDS crisis was just beginning and how fearfully it's victims were treated.
I wish I'd been able to read this book in a single sitting, and been able to give it my full attention. It deserved that. I'll have to return to it in a few years and read it when I can properly appreciate it. Despite reading it in a piecemeal and distracted fashion, I can clearly see that it is something exceptional.
Lucy’s story is a family troubled by poverty, a brutal father and a mother who is in denial. She suffers a lonely childhood where her main solace comes from books. “They made me feel less alone.” After receiving a college scholarship, Lucy manages to escape to Manhattan, reinventing herself through marriage, two children and a writing career.
This story seems simple enough—almost mundane. Yet Strout tells it with such finesse and nuance that one marvels at her skill. Lucy is her narrator. Her voice is totally believable. Her speech evokes Midwestern reserve and lack of cynicism. She meanders in and out of flashbacks, all the while dropping little bombs that ultimately shape the story and explain who she is. The plot has three layers. Lucy’s childhood in Amgash, Illinois is impoverished both financially and emotionally. Her mother’s hospital visit is filled with gossip but little actual reckoning. Her life in Manhattan exposes Lucy to the wider world and especially to the writing craft. Strout reveals these plot lines in a convoluted, but utterly believable way. She often hints at, but does not always reveal details. Instead of acting as sources of frustration, these gaps give the reader things to ponder. They also lend the story its power because they recreate the way people actually process their past—in bits and pieces, with omissions, embellishments, misunderstandings and especially repressions. Small events often have profound impacts on a life and Lucy struggles to make sense of hers. Once again, the words of Sarah Payne seem important. “If you find yourself protecting anyone as you write this piece, remember this: You’re not doing it right.”
Her mother represents the key to understanding Lucy. She loves to gossip about other people’s problems, but is in denial about her own. Despite his extreme cruelty and brutality, she remains loyal to her husband. His refusal to accept Lucy’s spouse because of his German ancestry was bad, but the way he treated his own son following a childhood experiment with cross-dressing is truly jaw dropping. Her father’s behavior seems to be exemplary of a wider pathology that may have even involved Lucy herself. Strout does not reveal the cause of Lucy’s melancholy, but one suspects her father may be its source.
Lucy’s mother refuses to acknowledge her husband’s bad behavior except to dismiss it as war-related. Likewise, she fails to express any affection for her children. Lucy accepts a certain amount of aloofness as integral to her mother’s character. “I feel that people may not understand that my mother could never say the words I love you. I feel that people may not understand: It was all right.” In spite of this, her mother shows affection obliquely by remaining awake during the night in her hospital room and finding Lucy after she is sent for a CT scan. Lucy’s husband seems to have had some role to play in orchestrating her estranged mother’s trip to the hospital, but this is one of those details left to the reader’s imagination.
This novel is remarkably nuanced and deceptively deep. At first blush, it seems rather simple and almost pointless, until one begins to reflect on it. It is short enough to re-read and I suspect that may be a worthwhile pursuit.
Lucy Barton’s story centers on a pivotal time in her life, when she was hospitalized for several weeks with a sudden unnamed illness. Her husband took charge of the household and their two young daughters, and arranged for Lucy’s mother to visit her. She appears unannounced at Lucy’s bedside, providing instant comfort despite their obviously strained relationship. During her stay Lucy reflects on many aspects of her childhood and takes tentative steps to form a different type of relationship with her mother.
As Lucy reveals the emotional scars from her past, we also get tiny glimpses into Lucy’s early adult life, and the years following her hospital stay up to the present. Elizabeth Strout drops tiny details into Lucy’s narrative that sometimes don't have meaning until later, when several dots connect for a surprising emotional impact. The prose is spare and the entire book is less than 200 pages long. Some readers object to this but for me it paradoxically increased the intensity of the story.
My Name is Lucy Barton made me reflect on maternal and marital relationships, the ease with which people can hurt one another, and how difficult it can be to repair the damage. Powerful stuff.
Despite her childhood of deprivation in rural Illinois, Lucy Barton makes it big as a writer in New York City. Along the way she becomes estranged from her parents and siblings. When complications from surgery land Lucy in the hospital for a weeks-long stay (this part is set back in the eighties when such a thing was possible), Lucy's mother appears at her daughter's bedside for a reunion. The two gossip about people from Lucy's hometown. Lucy's too-good-to-be-believed doctor takes care of her. Eventually Lucy recovers and returns home, and classic New York icons (The Yankees! Bloomingdales!) are once again subject to Lucy's gushing appreciation. However, she finds that her mother's visit has stirred up unresolved childhood issues.
My Name Is Lucy Barton is a character-driven novel, and much of the reader's experience of it is determined by what he or she thinks about Lucy Barton. I have to admit I found her sensitivity, which may be the point of the book, rather irritating. Aside from her gushing about NYC, there is also the matter of her developing intense emotional connections (usually expressed as "loving") to anyone who is kind to her. The point may be that she was so deprived as a child that she gloms onto others easily (this is an adult woman who still calls her estranged mother "mommy"), but this proclivity is a bit much. She trivializes the Holocaust by using it as a personal metaphor for her strained relationship with her half-German husband. She even indulges in a bit of sentimentality about AIDS victims. She's "jealous" of men with a terrible, fatal disease because as she says, at least they belong to a community (of other sufferers, apparently; Lucy says this in the eighties when people with AIDS were heavily stigmatized). Even 9-11 is all about her and her family.
I didn't feel much empathy for Lucy Barton the character, so I didn't think much of My Name is Lucy Barton, the book. If you can, for some reason, relate to the character, you may feel differently.
Note: I was given a free ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.
When the book begins, Lucy tells the reader that once, in the 1980’s, she had been in the hospital for nine weeks from an appendix operation gone wrong. Her story revolves around this confinement; and this is her story.
Lucy managed to survive a very dysfunctional childhood in ways her siblings did not. She was totally unworldly having never even seen a television show growing up or gone to a move. She was bullied at school and neglected at home because of her poverty, but she bore no grudge against anyone. When she managed to get an education and move away, she never returned home, but she continued to not only want her parents’ love and acceptance, she also continued to love them.
Lucy eventually married, had a family and became a published author. When she had to have her appendix removed, her recovery was impeded by an unknown infection that attacked her. Unable to eat and hold food down, she could not leave the hospital. Her husband hated hospitals and could not bear the sights or sounds. Lucy was sad and lonely. Without telling Lucy, he called her mother and asked her to come to “babysit”. She remained there for 5 days, watching over her daughter, hardly sleeping, just sitting there and talking to her about the people she knew from her past, calling her by her pet childhood name, Wizzle-dee. Lucy was childlike, wondering why her mom had come to see her, asking if she loved her. Although her mom’s parenting skills may have been lacking, her presence comforted Lucy. She and her mother began to bond and converse as they had never done before. Pieces of her past and the painful moments of her life were revealed as their conversations moved easily back and forth in time from the present to the past. Were her memories real or imagined? Was there really a big brown snake? Was it something else?
Although Lucy asked her mom many questions, she did not give direct answers and revealed nothing personal about herself except for a brief comment about not feeling safe. Her mom was an enigma. She certainly was not maternal, although from their conversations, it was apparent that she cared for Lucy. Still, she left the hospital abruptly on the day Lucy was scheduled for further surgery which was telling. She left never seeing her son-in-law or her grandchildren for the first time. She simply announced that she knew everything would be all right, and in spite of Lucy’s cries for her to stay, she left.
Over the five days her mom sat and talked with her in her hospital room, visibly showing the effects of her illness with her frailty and thinness, she and her mother spoke to each other as they had never had before; her mother told Lucy about all the people they had known. She identified their weak spots, found their faults and shame and exposed them to Lucy. They laughed together about the tragicomic tales her mother told. Her mom was invested in the emotional pain of strangers in much the same way that Lucy was invested in those that showed her compassion, like her doctor, her artist, and other men in her life. Her mother’s devotion to Lucy during her visit was complete. Although her mom was not demonstrative and was at times abusive, was she also loyal and loving? As they spoke to each other, Lucy was unsure if her memories were real or imagined. Lots of thoughts and questions raced through my mind as I read the book, none of which were answered, in much the same way as Lucy’s questions also remained unanswered!
I found the book interesting. Through Lucy’s thoughts, we see the overworked nurses and witness the resultant lack of attention and true care given to the patients whose cries go unanswered. As the thoughts of Lucy and her mother are revealed, we witness the unfolding of a neglected mother-daughter relationship. We discover they are both needy, both in some emotional and psychological pain, both refusing to reveal their innermost secrets to the other and both unable to speak of certain events in their lives. Both are still dysfunctional. Her mother was able to intuit a great deal about her child, even without having seen her for years. She apologized to Lucy for their poverty, the poverty that subjected her to humiliation.
This story is about a mother and her child from both perspectives. Lucy also had her own children whom she missed terribly in the hospital. Was Lucy’s mom correct in her perception that all would be well for Lucy in the end? It seemed to me that because Lucy had not experienced open affection at home and experienced hostility outside, she sought respect, love and affection from others ever after, but was surprised when she received it and didn’t believe her self worthy of the attention. Their thoughtfulness amazed her. She carried her childhood sense of loss and insecurity around with her, and she wondered if her mom had suffered as well as they somewhat revealed their hearts to each other.
The narrator reads this book in the manner in which it was written, slowly and laboriously, she reads too slowly. There is actually dead space on the audio; caused by her lengthy pauses, for effect; water might boil faster. Fortunately for me, I had a print copy to fall back on.
Strout has a way of using words to paint a picture that the reader cannot but completely comprehend. When she writes about something so inconsequential as a wiggle of the fingers, it becomes part of the story, a story that would be bereft without it.
Although the story is simple, Strout's treatment of it is anything but. In only a few pages, she made me care deeply about Lucy and want to know more about what led her to become the woman she is. We see Lucy's mother primarily through Lucy's eyes, but it is a satisfyingly complex portrait. Their relationship is complicated, but loving. Because of the way that the story is told, in short memories or conversations about other people, we don't get a chronological account of Lucy's childhood, but somehow deeply understand her experience.
Another interesting element is that the story is written as if Lucy is writing it, and we hear Lucy reflecting on the choices that she makes as an author, how she tries to reserve judgment about her characters and how this is not a story about her marriage (although it certainly plays a role).
Although relatively short, this book is rich with layers. I highly recommend it!
This is very much Lucy Barton’s story and she tells it in her own words and at her own pace. Growing up Lucy Barton was not an easy thing to do. The Bartons were among the poorest of families in little Amgash, Illinois, and everyone knew it – and worse, everyone treated them accordingly. Lucy, the Barton who escaped Amgash, now lives in New York City with a family of her own.
Confined to a hospital bed for what to her seems like forever, Lucy is battling a postsurgical infection that refuses to succumb to treatment. She misses her two daughters terribly and only sees her husband during sporadic, short visits. But lonely as she is, when she wakes up one day to see her long-estranged mother sitting at the foot of her bed, Lucy hardly knows how to react – or what to say. All they seem to have in common, really, is a shared memory of the townspeople back in Illinois, and both women find it easier to limit conversation to that safe topic rather than to risk an exploration of what went wrong between them. Try as she might to break through her mother’s emotional walls, Lucy knows the likelihood of doing so is not high.
Two of the saddest narrative reflections imaginable say it all:
“I feel that people may not understand that my mother could never say the words I love you. I feel that people may not understand: it was all right.”
“I have no idea if she kissed me goodbye, but I cannot think she would have. I have no memory of my mother ever kissing me. She may have kissed me though; I may be wrong.”
Layer by layer, Elizabeth Strout has constructed a haunting novel peopled by what are destined to be two of 2016’s most memorable fictional characters. My Name Is Lucy Barton is a beautiful book.
Publisher’s Summary: adapted from Audible.com
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.
So, I read and loved both The Burgess Boys and Olive Kitteridge, but Lucy Barton was not at all to my taste. I found nothing tender here between mother/daughter – not even the beginnings of anything tender. What I found was the continuance into adulthood of a dysfunctional, imbalanced relationship, which started early in childhood. Lucy Barton lived her first twelve years in a filthy garage, fettered by poverty and abuse. While it is possible her mother’s attempt to reconnect with her comes from a place of love, she simply lacks the skills to discuss their past for what it was: so instead, she gossips about past neighbours whose marriages have failed.
I do not recommend, but readers interested in Lucy Barton will find many that have.
The core of the plot is a long hospital stay. Her mother, summoned from the Midwest to NYC after no meeting between them for decades, appears and catnaps by her side, never leaving, for five startling days. Secrets and mundane recollections are revealed and some are reburied. The equivalent weights of childhood and adult life are shared, unburdened, and repacked.
Worthy of two readings. Indelible.
Whatever it's doing, overall, it worked for me. I'm not sure it would have if the book were any longer, but for 200 quiet little pages, it worked.
This is extraordinarily fine writing — subtle, perceptive, painful, kind. It is as much a meditation on fine writing as it is on living. Watching Strout’s Lucy sidestep the central horrors of her own life, yet delicately trace them out for us, is like participating in a masterclass on characterization. Absolutely fascinating.
Very highly recommended.
If I change a few words around in this paragraph I swear the author was talking about me:
"By the end of one hour her face looked like it had fallen the way white clay loses its shape when it's not cold enough, that is the image, that her face had dropped into a strange shape from fatigue, and at the end of three hours it seemed even more so, as though her white clay face was almost trembling. It took everything out of her to teach that class read that book, is what I am saying. Her face was just ravaged with fatigue."
And she got away. And had a rather normal life, with kids, marriage, divorce, plenty of money, a successful career.
And then the book ends. It was all just a little too vague for me--I was expecting some kind of bug reveal or showdown between family members. But it never comes.
This is a lovely book. Note that it is rather short and really comes across as a series of connected and interwoven short stories, each presented as a recording, or story, from Lucy. Many originate as Lucy is in the hospital and her mother visits her for five days, telling her tales about people from their hometown.
The stories give you an interesting insight into Lucy - you're left feeling as if you know her extremely well, and yet not at all. Some of them leave you with a staggering feeling, especially short bits about her childhood. It's not a happy book, at all, but a beautiful one, if that makes any sense. It also provides an amazing look at how one's childhood can affect you and the impact of your parents on your life. (If you're looking for a book that follows a narrative thread from point A to point B, however, this one isn't for you.)
I loved Strout's "Olive Kitteridge" - it was also a lovely, touching book. I didn't think this book was a good as "Olive," but it's still poignant in its own way. I feel like pieces of it will stay with me for some time.
(Note: I received an ARC from Netgalley in return for an unbiased review.)
Lucy Barton is in hospital for 9 weeks, and during that time her mother - whom she hasn't seen in a long time - comes to spend 5 days with her. She gets her mother to regale her with anecdotes about this one and that one from their past, and she tells her mum that she loves her, and her mum can't say the words back to her (but we know that she does), and.... well, that's about it really.
I know we're supposed to get all sorts of hidden depths from this book, but I just wasn't feeling it. I didn't not like it, but I found it instantly forgettable. Quite nothingy.
3 stars - what was the name of it again?
Lucy Barton is in the hospital recovering from what should have been a simple operation, but what has led to a persistent infection that has her doctors puzzled. She awakes one morning to find her mother, who she hasn't seen in many years, sitting at the foot of her bed. Thus begins a conversation that has Lucy ruminating on her dysfunctional family, gossip from her small hometown in Illinois and how her longing for family, a writing career and her children.has driven every aspect of her life.
This is a beautifully written story of a woman who is lost, but who then finds herself again.
As Lucy grows as a novelist, taking a class in Arizona, her teacher/mentor summarizes "This is a story about a mother who loves her daughter. Imperfectly. Because we all love imperfectly. But if you find yourself protecting anyone as you write this piece, remember this: You’re not doing it right.”
She did it right.