Impressionistic and haunting, Elizabeth Strout’s latest novel resembles its protagonist Lucy Barton, who doesn’t reveal her disturbing secrets outright but approaches them sideways, through delicate feints and jabs at the past and the truth.
In some ways, Lucy is the opposite of the strident Olive Kitteridge from Strout’s eponymous, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel-in-stories. Olive bludgeons her way through life, death and other difficulties with little patience for the foibles of others (and not much regard for her own weaknesses).
Though she’s more fearful than Olive, Lucy is more circumspect and forgiving. She has had to be. Her childhood was hard, confusing and painfully lonely. Fleeing the rural horrors and crushing poverty of Amgash, Illinois, for the impossible grandeur of New York City took a monumental effort, and even as a grown-up Lucy remains tremulous in her newfound safety.
“There are times now, and my life has changed so completely, that I think back on the early years and I find myself thinking: It was not that bad,” she muses. “But there are times, too — unexpected — when walking down a sunny sidewalk, or watching the top of a tree bend in the wind, or seeing a November sky close down over the East River, I am suddenly filled with the knowledge of darkness so deep that a sound might escape from my mouth. … This must be the way most of us maneuver in the world, half knowing, half not, visited by memories that can’t possibly be true. But when I see others walking with confidence down the street, as though they are free completely from terror, I realize I don’t know how others are. So much of life seems speculation.”
When you’re reading My Name is Lucy Barton, you will speculate, too. Strout’s narrative isn’t straightforward or even chronological, and she doesn’t spell out all of the terrors of that childhood in Amgash. My Name is Lucy Barton is far more spare than her last novel, The Burgess Boys, which also examined family relationships, including those between the adults who fled the homestead and those who stayed behind. But much of the joy of reading Lucy Barton comes from piecing together the hints and half revelations in Strout’s unsentimental but compelling prose, especially as you begin to grasp the nature of a bond in which everything important is left unsaid.
The novel opens with Lucy telling a story about what happened to her many years earlier: She was admitted into a New York City hospital to have her appendix removed, a more or less simple operation, only she does not recover. Her doctors aren’t sure why. Feverish and unable to eat, she languishes in her room, pining for her two young daughters. She does not seem to pine for her husband, who is “busy running the household and also busy with his job, and he didn’t often have a chance to visit me.” Really? Right away, Strout forces us to wonder.
One day, Lucy opens her eyes, and her mother is sitting by her bed in a chair. “I had not seen my mother for years,” Lucy says, “and I kept staring at her; I could not figure out why she looked so different.” Lucy doesn’t use the word estranged, but it will pop into your head anyway.
Her mother spends five days at Lucy’s bedside, sleeping in that chair — “Every time a nurse offered to bring her a cot, she shook her head” — and over that time, they talk about Amgash, about neighbors and relatives. Simmering below the surface of these chats, a dark and disturbing tide flows.
Strout shapes the novel around the sort of mundane, comfortable legends every family shares: “Kathie Nicely always wanted more” and “Abel landed on his feet” and “I never knew Harriet was stupid.” She chronicles the shame of poverty with blunt honesty (“I think it’s the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down,” Lucy says). Reporting all this from a future where she has become the writer she longed to be, Lucy relates other facts at an emotional remove: Until she was 11, her family lived in a garage. Her sister was told by a second-grade teacher that being poor was no excuse for being dirty. Her family ate molasses on bread for most meals.
But as the stories trickle out, they tweak disturbing memories: Lucy’s fear of being locked in her father’s truck. Her terror of snakes. Her brother’s public punishment for a delicate transgression. Without histrionics, Strout paints an indelible, grueling portrait of poverty and abuse that’s all the more unnerving for her reticence. With My Name Is Lucy Barton, she reminds us of the power of our stories — and our ability to transcend our troubled narratives.
Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.