Book review: Elizabeth Strout looks deeply into the mysteries of love

In her new novella My Name Is Lucy Barton, the Pulitzer Prize-winner writes prose so spare and profound it reads like scripture

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 January, 2016, 3:43pm
UPDATED : Friday, 08 January, 2016, 12:01pm

My Name Is Lucy Barton

by Elizabeth Strout

Random House

In the latest novel from Pulitzer Prize-winner Elizabeth Strout, an aspiring writer named Lucy Barton has had an emergency appendectomy after which complications keep her in the hospital for nine weeks. This gives her the occasion to reflect on many things. One is her childhood, marked by cruelty and hardship. Another is the kind of books she likes best.

“I like writers who try to tell you something truthful,” explains Lucy.

My Name Is Lucy Barton is a short novel about love, particularly the complicated love between mothers and daughters, but also simpler, more sudden bonds: between a patient and a caring doctor, between a bullied sixth grader and a sharp-eyed social studies teacher, between a New York apartment dweller and the elegant older man who lives on the top floor. It evokes these connections in a style so spare, so pure and so profound the book almost seems to be a kind of scripture, albeit a very down-to-earth and unpretentious one.

Despite all we learn about Lucy’s difficult childhood – the family of five lived in her great-uncle’s garage; she was often left locked in the cab of a truck for a whole day while her parents went to work; her father was subject to spells of insanity due to PTSD – she is deeply comforted by her mother’s presence. They gossip about former neighbours, make up nicknames for the nurses, have an argument about the death of Elvis Presley. “A poor boy from Tupelo who loved his mama,” Lucy quotes her mother as saying, tacking on a similar description of herself. “A poor girl from Amgash who loved her mama too.”

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Like the author’s Pulitzer-winning Olive Kitteridge (adapted for an HBO mini series last year) and The Burgess Boys, My Name Is Lucy Barton portrays flawed characters with respect and humanity. But while the two previous books brought whole communities into focus, the current novel is very much a one-woman show. Though the second world war, the Aids epidemic and 9/11 play glancing roles in the narrative, the focus remains tightly on Lucy’s family life and friendships, before, during, and then in the decades after her hospitalisation.

By the end of the book, we learn that Lucy has become a successful writer, with good reviews, significant income and appearances on national TV shows. She traces finding her vocation to a book she read in third grade: a character named Tilly, treated badly by the other girls simply because she is dirty and poor. “And I thought: I will write and people will not feel so alone!”

My Name Is Lucy Barton achieves that objective exactly.

Tribune News Service