MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON, by Elizabeth Strout. Random House, 193 pp. , $26.
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.
She is describing the work of an author she’s run into at the New York Public Library, whom she will eventually travel to Arizona to take a workshop with. She brings along a few scenes of the book we are now reading to see if they pass muster. “Now listen,” the author tells her, after praising her work and telling her it’s sure to be published. “People will go after you for combining poverty and abuse. Such a stupid word, ‘abuse,’ such a conventional and stupid word, but people will say there’s poverty without abuse, and you will never say anything. Never ever defend your work. This is a story about love, you know that.”
Indeed it is. “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 or sutra, if a very down-to-earth and unpretentious one.
Though Lucy has not seen her mother in many years, not since before she was married, her husband, William, places a call to Amgash, Illinois, and asks her to come visit, buying her what will be her first plane ticket. “Hi, Wizzle,” she says, appearing at Lucy’s bedside and squeezing her foot through the sheet. “Her being there, using my pet name, which I had not heard in ages, made me feel warm and liquid-filled, as though all my tension had been a solid thing and now was not.”
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 — Lucy is deeply comforted by her mother’s presence. They gossip about former neighbors, 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.”
Despite this affection, there remains a gulf between them. Her mother doesn’t want to hear about Lucy’s life, her marriage, her published stories. Lucy is taken aback that her mother even knows who Elvis Presley is — as far as she knows, the woman has never been to a movie or owned a television. To her dismay, during the five days her mother spends in the hospital, she never sleeps, only catnaps in the chair. “You learn to, when you don’t feel safe,” her mother says. “You can always take a catnap sitting up.” Lucy realizes she knows very little about her mother’s childhood. Furthermore, she has no idea what her mother remembers about the particular horrors of Lucy’s own — they never discuss it, and only flashes are seen in the book.
Like the author’s Pulitzer-winning “Olive Kitteridge” (adapted for last year’s HBO miniseries) 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 World War II, 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 hospitalization.
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.