My Name Is Lucy Barton
by Elizabeth Strout
My Name Is Lucy Barton (Random House 2016) by the 2009 Pulitzer Prize winning author Elizabeth Strout, is a touching and troubling story concerning a young married woman, Lucy Barton, who lives in New York in the 1980’s with her husband and two daughters. While her daughters are still quite young, Lucy is taken ill and spends 9 weeks in the hospital during which time her estranged mother comes to stay with her at the request of Lucy’s husband, William. What the reader learns about Lucy’s family during her mother’s visit develops into a disturbing tale about the elusive and complex nature of family love.
Told in spare and splendid first-person style, My Name Is Lucy Barton has a sinister undertone that was absent from Olive Kitteridge, her Pulitzer Prize winning book. This disquieting undertone, which I believe is created in part by the many short, staccato-like phrases used in the narrative, permeates the story.
As the story begins, Lucy has been alone for much of her hospital stay, and so is very surprised one morning to see her mother sitting in a chair at the end of her bed. Lucy is both happy and alarmed to see her mother; the ambivalence that she exhibits toward her keeps the reader off balance and unsure of Lucy and her mother’s relationship. There is a continuous strain in the conversations between the two women during the five days of her mother’s stay. Because Lucy is the narrator of the story, the reader knows that Lucy wants something positive to develop from their time together, but this same desire is not readily apparent in her mother’s conversations.
As a result of her illness Lucy requires a lot of rest, and it is during these times of rest that Lucy reminisces about her childhood. From her memories the reader learns that Lucy has endured a childhood of grinding poverty and parental abuse. As she sorts through her memories, Lucy tries to put the best possible spin on her past and her parents’ treatment of her, but because the reader can be objective, no such struggle is required to identify the abuse:
“The truck. At times it comes to me with a clarity I find astonishing. The dirt streaked windows, the tilt of the windshield, the grime of the dashboard, the smell of the diesel gas and rotting apples, and dogs. I don’t know in numbers how many times I was locked in the truck. I don’t know the first time, I don’t know the last time. But I was very young, probably no more than five years old the last time, otherwise I’d have been in school all day. I was put in there because my sister and brother were in school– this is my thought now — and my parents were both working. Other times I was put in there as punishment…Always I screamed and screamed. I cried until I could hardly breathe…And then my father would show up, unlock the door, and sometimes he carried me. ‘No reason to cry,’ he sometimes said, and I can remember the feel of his warm hand spread across the back of my head.”
The episodes of abuse are told with a plain and unsentimental voice — the same voice used to describe the more hopeful events, such as this observation from Lucy about her school days: “My teacher saw that I loved reading and gave me books, even grown-up books, and I read them. And then later in high school I still read books, when my home work was done, in the warm school. But the books brought me things. This is my point. They made me feel less alone. This is my point. And I thought: ‘I will write and people will not be so alone!’ “
It is understandable that Lucy, who is symbolic of anyone who has experienced childhood abuse from a parent, would have conflicted feelings about how she was treated as a child. The desire to be loved by one’s parents is overwhelming, and any excuse for bad behavior seems to be acceptable when one is so needy. Lucy’s confusion about what constitutes love follows her into adulthood, and at various points in the story Lucy professes to love people who are only obliquely associated with her, and are obviously not returning her affection.
But there is another attribute that Lucy exemplifies well: perseverance. She gets her work done at school despite the many challenges of home life, and does well enough to go to college, graduate and become a writer. While in the hospital, her mother comments on this. Her mother is incapable of saying she loves Lucy, but she does tell her: “You were a different kind of kid from Vicky. And different from your brother, too. You didn’t care as much what people thought.”
“What makes you say that?” I [Lucy] asked.
“Well, look at your life right now. You just went ahead and…did it.”
Here is one of the jewels worth appropriating from My Name Is Lucy Barton: Elizabeth Strout adroitly illustrates the difference between power and strength. Lucy’s parents had the power to withhold their love from her. They had the power to put her in a truck and leave her there all day. They had the power to strike her and her siblings without any apparent reason. Lucy had the strength to survive their mistreatment of her. Lucy also had the strength to complete her schooling, move away from home and experience success in life. This distinction between power and strength is a good one to recognize, and a valuable lesson to learn. Here we see an identifying characteristic of the meek — they keep quietly moving ahead. They neither grasp at nor demand things that others cannot or will not give them, yet they accomplish what they set out to do. And just as the scriptures say, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth,” (Matt 5:5), Lucy does inherit many tangible, as well as intangible, treasures in her lifetime — but the soundtrack to her story is in a minor key.
Elizabeth Strout in My Name Is Lucy Barton, by virtue of her outstanding mastery of storytelling, dispenses an inordinate amount of wisdom in her writing. Strout’s latest book is not always pleasant to read, but if you look squarely into the narrative without flinching, you will find diamonds for the taking. This would be a superb book for a book discussion.