My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

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Reviewed by Harriet

You will have only one story… You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You will have only one.

my name is lucy barton elizabeth strout

This advice, given to the protagonist on a writing course, really sums up what is happening in this superb novel. Lucy Barton is struggling to make sense of, and to tell, her own story – and she succeeds, supremely well.

Before I started editing Shiny, I wasn’t a great reader of contemporary fiction, preferring the tried and tested reprints road. That has changed quite a bit since the advent of Shiny, and I do try nowadays to keep up with newly published books. So, when I read announcement of the Booker Longlist last summer, and realised I’d barely heard of any of the writers on it, I decided it was time to venture out into unknown waters. My Name is Lucy Barton is where I started. And oh my goodness what a place to start. I said at the time that if this didn’t make the shortlist I’d be giving up reading (well, not really, but you see what I mean). And lo and behold it did not make the shortlist (though it was named one of the best books of the year by The Washington Post, The New York Times Book Review, NPR, BookPage, LibraryReads, Minneapolis Star Tribune, and St. Louis Post-Dispatch!), but since I rarely understand the thinking behind this kind of award I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised.

My Name is Lucy Barton was published in hardback in early 2016 (this review is of the paperback, just out in February 2017). At the time I had read a couple of reviews of it, but remembered little of what I’d gathered from them, so really I came to it with little knowledge of what sort of book it is. And what is that, you may ask? Well it’s a book partly about writing, partly about families and motherhood, partly (perhaps chiefly) about the nature of love. 

Lucy Barton is a young married woman, mother of two small girls, who has ended up spending many weeks in hospital with a mystery infection. She doesn’t have many visitors – even her husband (with whom her relationship is clearly troubled, though this is something she is not going to discuss) rarely comes to see her – and she misses her chidren, who are not allowed to visit. She is desperately lonely:

Had anyone known the extent of my loneliness, I would have been embarrassed. Whenever a nurse came to take my temperature, I tried to get her to stay for a few minutes. But the nurses were busy. They could not just hang around talking. About three weeks after I was admitted, I turned my eyes from the window late one afternoon and found my mother sitting in a chair at the foot of the bed.“Hi, Lucy,” she said. Her voice sounded shy but urgent. She leaned forward and squeezed my foot through the sheet. “Hi, Wizzle,” she said. I had not seen my mother for years, and I kept staring at her; I could not figure out why she looked so different.“Mom, how did you get here?” I asked.“Oh, I got on an airplane.” She wiggled her fingers, and I knew that there was too much emotion, for us. So I waved back, and lay flat. “I think you’ll be alright,” she added, in the same shy-sounding but urgent voice. “I haven’t had any dreams.”

Her mother stays for several days, refusing offers of a bed and just sitting in the chair, taking catnaps. They talk a bit, but truly what goes on between them is never expressed. There’s tremendous love here, something that they can never vocalise, but also many memories, some of which the mother seems to have completely blocked out. Lucy is taken back to memories of her childhood, one of great poverty and deprivation – there was a lack of everything, not just household necessities like food and heat but also books, magazines and TV. And there was certainly abuse, though this last is never foregrounded. It’s hinted at, though, and emerges clearly when Lucy’s mentor gives her a positive critique of her writing and tells her to ignore negative criticism: ‘People will go after you for combining poverty and abuse. Such a stupid word, abuse’. 

Whatever the hidden truths about those far off days, the wonderful thing here is that Lucy has no anger or bitterness about her past, harsh though it clearly was. Indeed she is capable of great love, not only for her husband and children and her difficult, uncommunicative birth family but also for her wonderful, kind-hearted doctor, for her neighbour Julian, and for Sarah Payne, the woman who encourages her to write. Even the deprivation she suffered has contributed to the work she now pursues with intensity:

My teacher saw that I loved reading, and she gave me books, even grown-up books, and I read them. And then later in high school I still read books, when my homework was done, in the warm school. But the books brought me things. This is my point. They made me feel less alone. This is my point. And I thought: I will write and people will not feel so alone! (But it was my secret. Even when I met my husband I didn’t tell him right away. I couldn’t take myself seriously. Except that I did. I took myself – secretly, secretly – very seriously! I knew I was a writer. I didn’t know how hard it would be. But no one knows that; and that does not matter.)

This is a very short novel – only just over two hundred pages. But it’s a little jewel of a book, not only for the wonderfully compressed truths about the way people communicate with others but also for the great beauty of Strout’s simple, spare, immensely telling prose. I loved every single second of it. I’ll be looking out for more from this wonderful author. If you haven’t read this one I suggest you do so very soon.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Elizabeth Strout, My Name is Lucy Barton (Viking, 2017). 978-0241248782, 208pp., paperback.

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