Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Elizabeth Strout, MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON

This is a quiet book; it is the first-person recalled conversation between a woman (Lucy) who is in the hospital for several weeks for an operation and recovery; and her mother, who comes to visit her from a tiny town in Illinois. It largely concerns Lucy's poverty-stricken, desperate childhood, and how she made the transition to living in New York City, married and with two children, and becoming a writer. (The voice feels deeply authentic, and I couldn't help wonder how much the narrative voice leaned on Strout's own experience.) The prose is even in tone, not at all hysterical or overwrought; but the memories are wildly uneven--from Lucy reading books in a quiet classroom after school (to stay warm, and avoid going home to the garage, where they live) to being locked in a truck for a day, with a snake, while her parents are at work and her older siblings at school. People might gripe that this book "tells" instead of "shows"; I would not say so at all. (To me, "telling" is not the same as reporting events that happen off-stage, or in the past; it's when events happen on stage and the author writes "she was mad" instead of "she hurled the pot at his head." But not everyone would agree with my definition.) This book is, for me, about empathy; how it happens unevenly, how the mother who is incapable of empathy when Lucy was young has developed a crack here and there, but is still largely unenlightened and too fragile to cope with anything real; how marriage shines a bright light on childhood scars; how recovery happens through contact with people who are steady, who are honest, who know how to listen and love. It's a quick read (an hour or two) and worth it.

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