Rosemary and Reading Glasses

Recommended Reading: My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout

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I picked up My Name is Lucy Barton*, the new novel from acclaimed author Elizabeth Strout, expecting to read a chapter or two and then come back to it the next day.

Seventy pages later, I looked up to realize that my tea had gone cold and that I’d meant to be asleep half an hour earlier. Reluctantly, I put the book aside. I finished it in one sitting the next evening.

Like Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night, this novel’s slimness belies its author’s complete mastery of form and character and ability to delve into complex psychological territory.

In the 1980s, Lucy Barton is a thirty-something woman confined to the hospital for weeks due to an unforeseen complication after an appendectomy. Her husband loathes hospitals and seldom visits; she misses her young daughters terribly. To Lucy’s utter surprise, her mother arrives unannounced to visit her; the two had been effectively estranged for many years.

Lucy (from a point more than two decades in the future; she is a writer) recalls their conversations, mostly about neighbors and acquaintances fallen on hard times. Elliptically, these talks cover the ground of her childhood, as Lucy gingerly remembers the desperate poverty of her rural Illinois upbringing. The family lived in a garage until she was eleven; she was locked into a truck cab when both her parents had to work and couldn’t afford a babysitter; she stayed in school as long as possible after classes because it was warm.

That poverty was tangled with abuse, as we slowly come to realize, and more difficult to understand, with love. Untethered from her family after her marriage and move to New York, Lucy desperately craves her mother’s affection—the evidence of which is her journey to a strange city and quiet refusal to leave her daughter’s side, venturing even into the bowels of the hospital when Lucy is taken away for tests—and more than that, her acknowledgment of their troubled past.

Isolation and loneliness are Lucy’s ever-present companions; one imagines her reading Forster’s prescriptive “only connect” and seeking, day after day, to do just that. Her writing is one attempt to bridge the gap between her memories and her present life—that is why, I think, she often refines her sentences, and reflects on what she’s just said to her mother, seeking precision on the one hand and internal clarity on the other. Writing about a friend, she notes, “I see now that he recognized what I did not: that in spite of my plenitude, I was lonely. Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.”

This is a gorgeous, thoughtful book that seeks to understand characters too often missing from contemporary novels (or reduced to cheap stereotypes), illuminating our common condition (who among us, no matter how loved and loving, does not recognize that we die alone?) with grace. It is, in a way, a plea for kindness. Highly recommended.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.

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