I always excitedly anticipate reading new books by Elizabeth Strout. I don’t know if this is because she writes powerful prose and striking characters with deep insight or if it’s because she often sets her stories in my home state of Maine so her narratives feel personally familiar and very real to me. Probably both. Whatever the case, her books are fantastic including her previous novel “The Burgess Boys” which came out a few years ago. Now she’s published a very different kind of novel “My Name is Lucy Barton”. It’s a pared-down short book narrated from Lucy’s perspective and, by this character’s own admission, she’s far from reliable and refuses to give the whole story. Through impressionistic passages we’re told about time she spent in the hospital “many years ago now” when her estranged mother visited her for several days. She meditates upon their conversations and other important moments from her life, but we don’t get the whole story – just haunting flashes of memories and meditative thoughts. They build to create a deeply-felt portrait of a life forged through perseverance and love.
Lucy is a successful writer in NYC who grew up in a very impoverished family in Illinois. She has little or no contact with her father or two siblings. She’s been married twice with two daughters from her first marriage. Beyond this, the full trajectory of her life is uncertain. Where some stories told from the point of view of a narrator who insists on being vague like the woman at the centre of Rachel Cusk’s “Outline” might frustrate a reader for deliberately suppressing detail and withholding emotion, Lucy is compelling and relatable for how forthright she is with her feelings. Cusk’s novel makes the perfect contrast where her narrator refuses to give her name (until it slips out towards the end) but Strout’s narrator firmly declares her name in the title. However, the texture of Lucy’s identity is more elusive. The story of her life isn’t straightforward because life isn’t straightforward. Memory is amorphous. This novel is filled with words like ‘maybe’ and ‘perhaps’ and ‘I think.’ Little is concrete. What really gripped me along her journey was this desperate need I felt she had to convey something important about her life. Her scattered story builds to something deeply felt and triumphantly inspiring.
Lucy finds a mentor and teacher in a writer named Sarah Payne who tells her that “we all have only one story.” It’s that singularity that Lucy strives so hard to describe. But, of course, there isn’t any one truth to the past and I felt this is why Lucy grapples to tell it. She also refuses to surrender some details like the break from her first husband William: “This is not the story of my marriage… I cannot write the story of my marriage.” It could be that the dissolution of her marriage isn’t the point of why she’s writing. Or she might be reluctant to divulge what really happened because she won’t come out well. Whatever happened, it’s now in the past. She meaningfully states: “when you write a novel you get to rewrite it, but when you live with someone for twenty years, that is the novel, and you can never write that novel with anyone again!”
What she reports on instead is the important momentary details of what have shaped her identity. For instance, she has an intense engagement with literature that feeds her desire to write: “the books brought me things. This is my point. They made me feel less alone.” All these details build toward a “ruthless” declaration of freedom from her past: “This is me, and I will not go where I can’t bear to go- to Amgash, Illinois- and I will not stay in a marriage when I don’t want to, and I will grab myself and hurl onward through life, blind as a bat, but on I go!” There is something beautifully liberating about this assertive cry of independence even though it involves cutting free from those you once loved. It’s an affirmation that you can create who you really want to be.
Strout has an unnerving knack for triggering bouts of nostalgia and reflection for me. In one section she describes seeing a house’s pink insulation and how overwhelmingly alluring it is, but she is warned off from ever touching it because of the danger of fibreglass. At another point she describes an early incident in her marriage where she tried to cook for her husband without knowing whether a clove of garlic meant the full bulb or only a sliver from it. I had this same experience as a precocious teen cooking a “fancy” meal for my friends. A recipe I made called for five cloves of garlic so I stood in a supermarket piling enormous bulbs of garlic into a shopping cart while my mother looked on disapprovingly. I know these images won’t resonant for everyone, but it’s striking to me how often Strout tugs at my memories making me recall and feel things I haven’t experienced in many years.
The universal feelings Strout taps more into are to do with strained family relations. Lucy longs for a love from her parents which they aren’t capable of giving or not, at least, in any overt way. She states that “Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.” Her awareness of her difference cuts her off from those around her. The emotional and financial depravity take their toll causing her to write “I think I know so well the pain we children clutch to our chests, how it lasts our whole lifetime, with longings so large you can’t even weep.” It’s interesting reading this so closely after reading Laing’s brilliant nonfiction book “The Lonely City” as Lucy is the embodiment of the kind of detached state of being that Laing describes so well. From her hospital bed, Lucy can see the Chrysler Building outside her window. It comes to stand like a beacon of all she’s come to stand for: a solid robust individual far from the desolate landscape of her upbringing.