Review: My Name is Lucy Barton

A friend of my wife’s gave me this book to read with assurances that I would certainly enjoy it.  One night, when I was about half way through the book, there was an interview of the author, Elizabeth Strout, by George Alagiah on the BBC World News channel.  The interview was recorded at the last Hay Festival.  I warmed to Ms Strout – in part – because two nights previously there was another interview from Hay of a poet, whose name I don’t recall, and whom I found unintelligible.  In her interview at the Hay festival,  Ms Strout said that her writing is shaped by the ordinary people she knew in Maine.

Elizabeth Strout was born in 1956 in Portland, Maine,  She attended Bates College and the University of Syracuse.  She waitressed before writing her first novel, Amy and Isabelle (1998). Her debut was met with widespread critical acclaim, became a national bestseller, and was adapted into a movie.  She has since written five novels, My Name is Lucy Barton  being her fifth.  Her third book, Oliver Kitteridge, was published in 2008. The book features a collection of connected short stories about a woman and her immediate family and friends on the coast of Maine.  It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.   Louisa Thomas of the New York Times said: “The pleasure in reading Olive Kitteridge comes from an intense identification with complicated, not always admirable, characters. And there are moments in which slipping into a character’s viewpoint seems to involve the revelation of an emotion more powerful and interesting than simple fellow feeling—a complex, sometimes dark, sometimes life-sustaining dependency on others. There’s nothing mawkish or cheap here. There’s simply the honest recognition that we need to try to understand people, even if we can’t stand them.”

Elizabeth Strout

My Name is Lucy Barton is centered on the unexpected interaction between Lucy Barton, who is in hospital suffering from complications following surgery, and her estranged mother, who has flown east to be with her.  Throughout the book, Lucy has recollections about her childhood in rural Illinois with an impoverished family: distant father and mother, a sister and brother.  Lucy, herself, has gained an education, a marriage, two small daughters, and a career as a writer in New York City, thus estranging herself from her family.  The dialogue between the two women is both limited in the sense that there are unspoken words, and informative in revealing something of their respective characters.  Ms Strout strikes this balance in her writing very well.  She also uses the descriptive recollections of people of the past to elucidate some of the values of the principal characters.  She uses unique voices which shed light on the characters, and her writing style flows simply.  Characterisation is clearly Ms Strout’s strength.

My Name is Lucy Barton is, at 188 pages, short enough to be considered a novella, rather than a novel.  For me, while the writing flows beautifully and the characters are very much alive and their circumstances unique, what was missing was how and why the current circumstances arose.  Why, for example, did Lucy’s father lock her in his pickup for hours – on one occasion with a large brown snake?  We are told that is was a frequent occurrence, but we don’t know why, and knowing why and how it came about would shed further light on the characters.  All of the characters are certainly interesting, but I feel like a hungry diner who was served only an appetizer.

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