"My Name is Lucy Barton" by Elizabeth Strout

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Elizabeth Strout’s new novel, My Name is Lucy Barton, is causing a sensation among readers and critics, as well it might. In its halting, diffident tones, it elucidates one woman’s struggle to understand her past, her family, and especially her mother. It’s a book in which human emotion and motivation must be guessed at - the first-person protagonist, Lucy, keeps guessing throughout, including trying to puzzle out her mother while she’s standing in the same room with her. The whole is memorable, affecting, and somehow ennobling.

Lucy went into the hospital a long time ago, to have her appendix out, but mysterious complications arise in surgery’s wake. Her mother surprises her (at Lucy’s husband’s urging and financial support) by paying a visit to her there. It isn’t necessarily what they say to each other, but more how they talk through the sometimes difficult history, the haunting memories each has of Lucy’s youth. These plain, charming conversations lead to recollections and speculation, and they lead Lucy to writing her reaction. She recalls features of her childhood and her brother and sister; she remembers having to fake being an adult in modern society because she came out of her childhood with almost no understanding of modern beliefs and attitudes.

Lucy Barton is a remarkable character: endearing, self-deprecating, successful and worldly in spite of the emotional poverty of her childhood. Her voice and her observations, and her brutal honesty with herself form this entire book, and it all works superbly. Ms. Strout has clothed the narrative in two shades, it seems to me, and reflects them off the iconic Chrysler Building, which is visible from Lucy’s hospital room. During the day, the building’s ornate top fades into the late spring sky, its colors unremarkable. At night though, the shiny symbol of humanity’s hopeful, upward urges takes over, and rises above the glittering streets below.
This convoluted yet graceful talisman gathers up and distills the complex, roiling human strivings of the mortals below; it announces that Lucy, even with her bleak childhood, has a noble, creative spirit, and especially that she understands and cares about the suffering of others. Beneath the surface of bland language and lack of confidence lies the world’s fullest complement of intelligence and curiosity and charity. It’s Lucy’s recognition of this in herself and in others that lends this shining narrative its class and luminescence.

Take up My Name is Lucy Barton, do not let this opportunity pass by. Books this simple and effective and beautiful don’t come along very often.

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