Monday, 8 May 2017

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Lucy Barton is languishing in hospital in New York, the victim of an infection that has turned a short stay for an appendix operation into a hugely expensive nine-week-long endurance test for her, especially when the family friend entrusted to look after her two daughters brings them to visit her with grubby faces and dirty hair. Even worse, her husband hates hospitals and each visit by him is an obvious feat of will: the situation is not conducive to promoting rest and the return of strength necessary for Lucy’s discharge.

Until she wakes one day to find an unfamiliar figure seated at the foot of her bed. At Lucy’s husband’s request and subsequent expense, her mother has flown from her small town in Illinois to spend time with Lucy – which she literally does, not leaving her bedside for the five-day duration of her visit. The nurses offered to provide a cot for her, but Lucy’s mum preferred the chair, she said.

Mum’s visit would be the norm, indeed expected in any extended family, except that Lucy’s family were not given to normal displays of emotion; indeed it was imperative for the survival of Lucy, her sister and brother that they ask for nothing, expect nothing – and when they got nothing, not to be surprised. The family’s poverty was abject, even though her parents worked every daylight hour to keep the family fed, and because they all lived in a garage, the family was also known as dirty as well as poor, labels that, had Lucy stayed in that town, would have branded her for life.

Fortunately for Lucy, she had secret dreams, dreams of being a writer which were nurtured by a sympathetic teacher who was instrumental in helping her get a scholarship to a college in Chicago: Lucy is on her way, ready to leave her brutal past behind. She gradually transforms her life, falling in love with William, her husband, and giving birth to her beloved daughters. She has success as a writer, too, which she hopes will make her parents proud, but who would know? Their reactions to her academic success and marital stability are decidedly low-key; she has not seen them for years and they have never seen their grandchildren. Therefore, her mother’s presence at her sickbed, welcome as it is, is a surreal experience for Lucy. Why is she here?

Ms Strout has constructed, as always, a story of great power encapsulated within the pages of a very slim volume. She describes the rocks and shoals of familial love – and conflict – painfully and honestly. We readers cannot turn away from the many truths revealed, nor should we want to.

Initially, I was confused by Lucy’s revelations, some of them huge, that were dropped like bombshells casually into the narrative; it was only at the end that it was announced that this is the first book of a series called ‘Anything is Possible’. Presumably, more will be revealed of the bombshells (and their craters) in subsequent volumes, for Elizabeth Strout is a writer sublime. My introduction to her was ‘Olive Kitteridge’ (see review below) – I became her Biggest Fan (along with the many millions of others) after reading that gem, and I haven’t changed my opinion.


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