Sunday, May 1, 2016

Staff Review: My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

My Name Is Lucy Barton is the third novel I've read by Elizabeth Strout. I began reading her in 2008 when she published Olive Kitteridge, which won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and became an HBO four-part mini-series starring Frances McDormand.

I'm always a little puzzled by my relationship with this author. Her characters sometimes put me off with their razor-sharp tongues, relentless sarcasm, and the cloying dysfunction within which they live, and yet there is also something so compelling about her novels that I find myself reading her again.

So, what is it? In part it's her intelligence and in part her settings -- I love stories that unfold in New England. She's also a wonderful wordsmith. Her novels revolve around families, their interactions, traumas, and flaws.

In Strout's newest novel, Lucy Barton comes from a poverty-stricken, emotionally-crippled family, a family that frequently goes hungry and lives without benefit of heat, books, television, decent clothes, and any normal displays of affection. When her parents go out, they lock little Lucy in a truck at home, one time, inadvertently, with a snake.

Lucy manages to break away from her unlovely kin via college and an interest in writing. Years later, as a young wife and mother, she finds herself stuck in a hospital for weeks with an unspecified infection. To her great surprise, her estranged mother shows up and camps out in Lucy's room, and the two spend hours talking, gossipy talk mostly, about people from the past. Her mother then leaves and the uncharacteristic bonding's over. While it lasts though, Lucy's in deep mother-love and happy.

Strout's achievement in this short novel is her very human understanding, her compassion for Lucy's badly flawed family members, who made her childhood such a misery, and her realistic offering of an alternate way of life. As a Boston Globe reviewer notes in her glowing review: The "psychic wounds of her childhood are part of Lucy, but they do not define her. We see this as we watch her find her place in the world, learn how to be ruthless for her art, and come to understand that while humiliation is unacceptable, humility is essential."

~Ann, Adult Services

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