I wanted to read Elizabeth Strout’s latest book: My Name is Lucy Barton (Random House, New York, 2016) because I loved Olive Kittredge. I loved the book and I loved the HBO series. It was one of the first things I saw when I arrived in Paris.
I am a member of the amazing American Library in Paris which houses the largest collection of English language books on the continent. I put a Hold on Lucy Barton and then waited five months for my turn to come around.
When I picked it up, the back cover fell open to a photo of Ms. Strout. The photo is captivating. She is looking the reader right in the eye with a look of such kindness. She has a smile on her face that tells me she would be great company, someone to sit down with for a cup of tea and just talk about life. I can’t tell if her hair is blond or white or a combination of both. She has such an air of being young, approachable but full of depth – what I call experience. This photo contrasts so much with the glossy photos that often accompany action driven books. I was fairly sure just by looking at her that I would be reading a character driven novel.
My name is Lucy Barton is short, 191 pages. I read it in two sittings. Then I put the book down on the floor, sat on my couch and asked myself “how does she do that?” How does she write such simple sentences, such simple scenes and make them so full of all the pathos that makes up our lives” This book is for mothers, anyone who has a mother or has had a mother or has been a mother. This book is about relationships and marriage and children and doctors and first time loves. But it is all about Lucy Barton—how she reflects on her far past, her not so far past, her present and for a large part of the book, a hospital stay where she went for two days and stayed for nine weeks.
One morning, she woke up to find her mother sitting at the end of her bed. And this starts the story that almost every woman I know yearns for—some indication of her mother’s enduring love. Lucy calls her mother ‘mommy’. I’ve been embarrassed to say ‘mommy’ in either speech or writing since I was about fifteen years old. I had decided my mother wasn’t a mommy. If Lucy Barton’s mother was a mommy, mine was too. And just allowing the word back into my vocabulary, allows me to mourn her passing in a whole new way.
Lucy Barton was born dirt poor. She managed to leave home, go to college and live in NYC. She makes observations like: “It has been my experience throughout life that the people who have been given the most by our government—education, food, rent subsidies—are the ones who are most apt to find fault with the whole idea of government. I understand this in a way.” And she does, it’s just an observation. One of hundreds that made me put the book in my lap for a few minutes and think.
Lucy Barton is a writer. Elizabeth Strout is an author. There are some wonderful insights into the life of an author. Are they autobiographical? I don’t know and don’t care. They speak for themselves. When Lucy attends a talk by an author she’d run into in a clothing store, some of the audience attacked her (the author) for reference to a past president. The moderator was fascinated and pushed the author, asking her how she responds “She said that she did not answer them….’It’s not my job to make readers know what’s a narrative voice and not the private view of the author,’ and that alone made me glad I had come (thought Lucy)” He pushed her some more .“He said, ‘What is your job as a writer of fiction?’ And she said that her job as a writer of fiction was to report on the human condition, to tell us who we are and what we think and what we do.”