Tuesday, December 22, 2015

My Name is Lucy Barton

Title:  My Name is Lucy Barton
Author:  Elizabeth Strout
Publication Information:  Random House. 2016. 208 pages.
ISBN:  1400067693 / 978-1400067695

Book Source:  I received this book through a publisher's giveaway free of cost in exchange for an honest review. Thank you Shelf Awareness.

Opening Sentence:  "There was a time, and it was many years ago now, when I had to stay in a hospital for almost nine weeks."

Favorite Quote:  "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."

I just finished reading this short novel in one sitting. I am still caught up in the force and emotion of the story. I will likely read it again to get the full depth of Lucy Barton and the person she is. It's difficult to exactly describe this book, but one way is to look at what this book isn't and what it is.

This book is not a chronological story with a beginning, middle, and an end. The book centers on a time when the Lucy Barton spends nine weeks in the hospital.  As the opening sentence indicates, the story is a reflection back on this event many years later. It is unclear at what point Lucy is writing this story; in other words, it is unclear what the present time is except that it is years later, and much has changed.

Anchoring the story to that hospital stay almost makes that point in time the "present" day of the story. Lucy goes in to the hospital for an appendix operation, and complications ensue, which keep here there for weeks. However, her illness is not at the heart of the book. At the heart of the book is the fact that her mother comes to help for a period of five days during this time. Five days out of nine weeks. From that point, the story swings to the past, to that point, and to the future.

From the conversations with her mother come memories of childhood, love, marriage, and children. There are certain things mother and daughter do not talk about, but even seemingly superficial conversations about people they used to know carry deeper meaning. Lucy carries with her the remains of a traumatic childhood - extreme poverty, a dysfunctional family, judgement, isolation, and so much more - all of it sad and melancholy.

To a great extent, that childhood determines the direction of the rest of her life. Lucy's childhood and their inability to talk about it defines Lucy's relationship with her mother. It propels her to escape from the small town Amgash, Illinois without much of a look back. It reinforces the insecurities with which Lucy approaches her skills and her work as a writer. It underlies the inability of her husband and her own two daughters to erase the scars left by her childhood.

For the reader, all that insight into Lucy comes from reading between the lines of this book. This book reads almost like a play. Each chapter - if you can call it that - is brief and has the sense of fading in and out of a scene. Each presents a snapshot of a moment or a person. The next moves on to a different moment or person. At times, particularly at the beginning of the book, this fact is disconcerting and makes the book a little disjointed. However, before I know it, from these snapshots emerges a life. It's as if the individual points are the brush strokes, and only when you step back do you see the painting emerge. Individual notes, without much meaning on their own, create a melody when put together.

This book is fiction that reads like a biography. The first person narrative certainly lends to that impression. The fact that the main character is a writer lends to that image. The fact that she talks about her process of writing "this story" lends to that.

The fact that the book and its emotions feel so real, however, is the biggest reason. This book feels genuine and leaves me thinking that it is more than fiction. Therein lies the power of this story.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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