My Name Is Lucy Barton by Pulitzer Prize-winning Elizabeth Strout is not a typical novel. I kept waiting for the gimmick that would make this fit some genre or category I’d recognize, but the gimmick never came. I guess I’d call it a novella, but it also feels a bit like a journal. In any case, the book is a reminder that families can be sources of epic, lifelong pain – or, really, that they are the sources of everything.
The book starts when Lucy is in the hospital, suffering from an infection. Her estranged mother shows up to be with her. I thought, “Mom’s a ghost! This is going to be a ghost story!" Then I thought, “Lucy is really dead! She’s on her way to heaven!” And then I thought, “Lucy’s really in a psychiatric hospital!” None of these things is true. She is really in the hospital with an infection, and her mom is really there.
The reader sits at Lucy’s bedside with her mother and gets glimpses of the deep poverty and abuse and neglect that characterized Lucy’s childhood. Strout only gives us little flashes of this past, however, and her restraint somehow makes reading about Lucy’s experiences all the more difficult.
The mother sits at the center of the back story, and it is devastating to watch Lucy --as an adult-- keep asking, “Do you love me? Do you love me?” We also get to watch Lucy’s relationships with her own daughters and her acknowledgment that she can (and does) cause THEM the kind of pain they will carry forever, too.
The promotional material for this novel calls it a book about mothers and daughters, but it is not the kind of book that will turn into a Hallmark Channel movie of the week . Note that the cover of the book does not feature flowers! The father in the story is also key, as are siblings and partners and children. I think that ultimately this is a book that intends to remind us that family permanently shapes us, and what happens to us in our families becomes, as Lucy learns, our one and only story to tell.
You can find an interesting article about Strout here.