Okay okay okay. Female novelists writing about females dealing with being female… we’ve been here before. We’ve done this dance. You know I love these books. I know I love these books. It won’t surprise anyone when I come out and say right off the bat that I loved this book.
Elizabeth Strout is one of the queens of this females-writing-females market (because there are multiple queens to be sure in this matriarchal book niche). Olive Kitteridge was a stunning testament to the multidimensionality of a woman’s life. Through her eyes and through the eyes of others, we see her absorb the tension of the universe while forcefully finding herself within it.
“As a matter of fact, there is no reason, if Dr. Sue is going to live near Olive, that Olive can’t occasionally take a little of this, a little of that—just to keep the self-doubt alive. Give herself a little burst. Because Christopher doesn’t need to be living with a woman who thinks she knows everything. Nobody knows everything—they shouldn’t think they do.”
Before that, Amy and Isabelle is one of the greatest mother-daughter novels ever written. Isabelle is a devastatingly sympathetic heroine with all the pathos of a great Greek tragedy.
“All afternoon her spirits were high because she was going to become well-read. Typing a letter to Beltco Suppliers, Incorporated, Isabelle though how she would be able to say lightly to someone, ‘That reminds me of the scene in Hamlet when…’ Not her fellow workers in the mill, of course (she smiled at Fat Bev, who was just now lumbering back from the water fountain, wiping her hand across her mouth)—no, she wouldn’t mention Shakespeare to them. But her daughter, someday, would appreciate this—the two of them sitting in a coffee shop talking about Shakespeare’s plays.”
So I was thrilled to get my hands on a copy of Elizabeth Strout’s newest fiction foray (after Burgess Boys which I, admittedly, never read). My Name is Lucy Barton is described as the story of a woman who reconnects with her mother after a serious illness. While this might ostensibly be the start of a plot, the book moves in serpentine, sometimes startling directions back and forth in time and, more importantly memory.
We learn in the beginning of the novel that Lucy is ill. She’s stuck in the hospital with something quite serious. She loses weight. She has been there for weeks. Her family has stopped visiting with the frequency they once did, including her two young daughters, whose precious early girlhood she craves in the austere grays and whites of the hospital.
And her mother does arrive right on time. But before you let yourself luxuriate in the idea of a progressive plot (Lucy is sick, her mother has arrived, what will happen next?), the novel begins to swivel. We see Lucy’s thoughts racing back to her childhood, touching on moments that are too painful to reveal, some that are too fuzzy to remember. We understand that Lucy is not, in fact, telling her story from the hospital. There are three Lucy’s in the novel: Lucy as a desperately poor child desperate to find a way to rationalize her poverty, sick Lucy whose closest relationship has become the passionate love she feels for her fatherly doctor, and Lucy the writer, otherwise known as Lucy the omniscient. Across these fever dream dalliances into the past and future, Lucy’s mother glistens like a lighthouse.
Lucy’s unnamed mother is the character I recognized as most Stroutian (definitely a word). When her mother arrives, Lucy asks how on earth she rode on a plane and hailed a taxi, both things she’s never done before. Her mother’s response (“I have a tongue in my head, and I used it”) is a response worthy of Olive Kitteridge. This line is so good, I’ve decided to say this to people on the street. All day, every day.
But Lucy’s reaction to her mother is where the novel begins to fracture into these complicated little revelations. She feels the enormity of childish love for her mother, whose distance has made her all the more tantalizing. Meanwhile, Lucy must grapple with the points in her childhood that continue to torment her: the darkness, the pain, and the fear.
Strout does a wonderful job at telling a story by not telling it at all. This is one of those novels that I read looking for a plot, before I realized that everything I needed was hidden inside. But I definitely had to work to be rewarded. Lucy is all too human in her moments of clarity, her self-disgust, and her inability to move past the story that is the most formative: our own.
Strout has been accused of lacking subtlety in her latest novel, which I couldn’t disagree with more. For me, this is one of those novels where you see a writer not just advancing their piece one square, but moving from Connect-Four to Chess in one giant leap. Just to clarify, I love Connect-Four, too.
The way this novel is framed asks us to read backwards and forwards. I continually had to turn back to discover if a new character wasn’t new at all, but in fact, very old. Strout left clues like a cat burglar, subtly asking us to understand that Lucy is not trying to deceive us. She is trying to reveal herself. But it is so, so hard. I think we can all relate.
Ultimately, this novel reminded me of Jenny Offill’s marvelous Dept. of Speculation. But instead of a woman becoming a mother, this is about a child becoming a daughter, an adult learning to love an adult. This was one of the most spectacular books I have read recently, and is so well worth the time and attention Strout demands.