When I decided to read My Name is Lucy Barton by Pulitzer Prize winning author Elizabeth Strout, I had no idea it would become an instant bestseller. I just liked the publisher’s description and I had previously reviewed one of her novels, The Burgess Boys (link at end of this review), which I loved. So, it was not a hard decision to make and obviously I’m not the only person who thought so. This novel is all about the complexities of mother and daughter relationships, so I guess it’s not a surprise that I chose it. I can’t say that this was always a comfortable book to read; however, it is so telling about the push-pull of mother-daughter relationships that it ensnared me immediately. If you like stories about families then you’ll want to see if it might belong on your TBR stack.
“My Name is Lucy Barton was a different kind of book for me, and writing it surprised me. While I hope for all my books to provide the reader with a kind of intimate experience this one seems particularly available for that, I think. It is written in the first person — the only novel I have written this way — and her voice became very real to me as I wrote; I felt I knew her very well, and I hope the reader feels this too.” Author’s Note
Lucy Barton is the third child in her family. Bowen writes in psychological literature that essentially the third child is the weird one. Now that doesn’t mean the third child is nuts, just that the third child is unlike any of the others – and often unlike anyone else in the family in some particular way. Lucy’s eldest sibling, a brother, still lives at home with his parents even though he’s in his 30’s. She also has an older sister, who has lived the life her parents expected. Lucy is the one who struck out and escaped their dysfunctional family, the one who moved far, far away – the one who’s done things her own unique way. The one who became a writer.
Now Lucy is looking back at things that have happened during her life. One thing she’s thinking about is the time she was in the hospital in her city far away, New York City to be exact. She came into the hospital for a simple operation, to have her appendix removed, which didn’t turn out to be so simple when all was said and done. She became a captive, facing things she had no preparation for. In other words, life threw her a big curve ball. She wasn’t dying but things had become a lot more serious than anyone expected.
“Toward the beginning of July, whatever problem had taken hold of me went away. But until then I was in a very strange state – a literally feverish waiting – and I really agonized. I had a husband and two small daughters at home; I missed my girls terribly, and I worried about them so much I was afraid it was making me sicker…They were brought into my room by a family friend, and I saw how their little faces were dirty, and so was their hair, and I pushed my IV apparatus into the shower with them, but they cried out, ‘Mommy, you’re so skinny!’ They were really frightened…They said little, the youngest one especially seemed unable to speak, and when I put my arm around her, I saw her lower lip thrust out and her chin tremble; she was a tiny thing, trying so hard to be brave…My husband, naturally, was busy running the household and also busy with his job, and he didn’t often have a chance to visit me. He had told me when we met that he hated hospitals – his father had died in one when he was fourteen – and I saw now that he meant this.”
Lucy had been there about two weeks when she awakened from a nap to find her mother sitting in her room. That was quite a shock. Her mother didn’t like big cities and, even if she had, Lucy would never have expected to have her show up all alone in a New York City hospital. And it was quickly apparent that her mom didn’t plan to leave any time soon. It was awkward and touching all at the same time…touching that she would come all that way alone, and awkward because she was there and Lucy had no idea how to handle having her there. What on earth would they talk about? They hadn’t spoken in years, literally.
“’Mom, how did you get here?’ I asked.
‘Oh, I got on an airplane.” She wiggled her fingers, and I knew that there was too much emotion for us. So I waved back, and lay flat. ‘I think you’ll be all right,’ she added, in the same shy-sounding but urgent voice. ‘I haven’t had any dreams.’
Her being there, using my pet name, which I had not heard in ages, made me feel warm and liquid-filled, as though all my tension had been a solid thing and now was not…Every time a nurse offered to bring her a cot, she shook her head. After a while, the nurses stopped asking. My mother stayed with me five nights, and she never slept but in her chair.”
“’Was it scary getting a taxi, Mom?’
She hesitated, and I felt that I saw the terror that must have visited her when she stepped off the plane. But she said, “I have a tongue in my head, and I used it.’
After a moment I said, ‘I’m really glad you’re here.’
She smiled quickly and looked toward the window.”
And then Lucy’s mother began to talk about inconsequential things; memories, people back in their small Illinois town, little tidbits of small-town life, things that had happened to people they both knew – just everyday life. And as her mother talked, the Lucy who left home and had since matured or at least aged into a thirty-something began to see her mother – and to see herself.
Mother-daughter relationships are always complicated, even in the best of situations. Sometimes moving far away is the only way to detach enough from dysfunctional family relationships to be able to begin to see those relationships from an objective point of view. And sometimes even that isn’t enough, especially if a family has been very dysfunctional. We all do the best we can to shed the bad stuff and embrace the good stuff from our families. Lucy is given an amazing opportunity, although she is a bit of a captive since she can’t leave her hospital bed. Maybe that’s what she needed, to be held captive while she comes face-to-face with her mother, but as an adult with a career and with a family of her own.
My Name Is Lucy Barton may sound like a highly emotional, tense novel, yet it is relayed to the reader by Lucy without knee-jerk emotion on the surface at least. Underneath the words, however, is a lot of tension and longing for how things might have been. And this is not a long novel – it doesn’t have to be because there is so much power on every page. Does it provoke emotion? Yes, at least it did for me. At times, it was hard for me to read because it touched things in my past. I can’t say what it will provoke in you because each of us is different. Above all, I believe this is an honest novel. It doesn’t pull any punches and it doesn’t go off into fairy tale, happily ever after territory. It’s very real. And it’s also hopeful about our ability to get past our stories and to deal with what is, which is a huge gift. Is it for you? I don’t know. Obviously a lot of people think it’s for them because it’s a New York Times bestseller only a week or so after it was published. If you like masterfully written stories about family, then I don’t hesitate to recommend My Name Is Lucy Barton.
Can’t wait to read it? My Name Is Lucy Barton is available in all formats from your favorite online bookseller below. Just click the link to order it. If you download it as an e-book, you can have it to read immediately!
I’d love to get your comments on My Name Is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout and/or her other work, and/or this review.
Click here to read our review of The Burgess Boys.