I’ve been knitting a lot in my spare time, but I need a break sometimes. Good thing I brought a bunch of books with me to Colorado. At least three of them are books by Elizabeth Strout, who wrote the Olive Kitteridge books I enjoyed so much. The first one I read is My Name is Lucy Barton (2016), which is apparently going to become a major Broadway play.
The book looks much more substantial than it actually is. That’s because it starts out with eight pages of praise for the book and ends with a book club guide and an excerpt from another book. Why did they need to pad it out so much? And my suspicion is immediately aroused when they spend so much paper on telling you how great the book is, rather than letting you figure that out for yourself by actually reading the darned thing. And check out the cover, which tells you how much the NY Times, the Boston Globe, and the Pulitzer Prize committee love the book and the author.
Now, I did enjoy this book very much. The writing is as spare and open as the other books I’ve ready by Strout. And the story, which revolves around a writer reminiscing about a long visit from her estranged mother, while she was hospitalized with mysterious complications from surgery. You get hints of an abusive past and damaged family members, but a lot is left to your imagination, because as Lucy points out she really can’t know what anyone else thinks, felt, or experienced. I loved that part.
And I really like some of the other themes that Strout repeats throughout the book. One is that people really seem driven to find ways to make themselves feel superior to others, even those at the bottom of the social hierarchy (which is where Lucy comes from – an entire family who lived in an unheated garage for many years). Lucy spelled it out this way:
If you know me at all, you know that this is one of my big areas of concern, too. I like the way she talks about it at an interpersonal level rather than a cultural level. Lucy appears to remember every single person who ever looked at her as an equal or treated her kindly, having experienced so little of it as a child.
The other theme that gets repeated often (and by the way, Lucy is very explicit in her repetition, as in the above quote, where she reminds us that she’s repeating herself) is our inability to know what other people are thinking or feeling. Heck, she often points out that she is not sure what she remembers or what happened. This is so true, and if we are honest with ourselves, we will take this lesson to heart. I mean, I have had conversations with people from my past where our memories don’t even sound like memories of the same events, they come out so different. Lucy knows that, explicitly.
And because Lucy doesn’t really know what’s going on with other people, her readers don’t get a lot of information about any of the other characters in the book, like her mother, husband at the time she was hospitalized, neighbors, and siblings. You just find out how they affected Lucy. That’s an interesting perspective to me, and I liked it more than I thought I would.
Strout does an excellent job of showing how Lucy Barton is like a stranger in the society she lives in, often just with subtle word choices. And Luvy often shares that she has huge popular culture gaps, due to never experiencing things like television shows, movies, and the world outside her Illinois farm community (which she also portrays well – those cornfields and views resonated with my time in east-central Illinois).
But, sometimes I get to wondering how Lucy did all the things she did with such limited life experiences. Of course, she was smart, read a lot, and, as her truly weird mother would say, she just went and did things. She knew she had to get out of her abusive home environment, and she did. But how did she deal with college roommates, traveling, and things like that? How did she go from not understanding shopping to spending so much time in Bloomingdales? How did she manage to raise her daughters?
A final thought I wanted to share is that I admired how Lucy owned being “ruthless” as a friend of hers termed it. Sometimes she had to do things, even if she knew it would hurt others. I see that in myself a lot, especially when it comes to people in my family. Lucy knew that having to leave her husband was right for her, but perhaps not right for her daughters. This paragraph hit very close to home for me, and I see both my child self and my own children here:
I had to suspend my logical mind’s questioning during My Name is Lucy Barton, but that was okay. And if you think of the book as more of a Zen Koan or a spiritual guidebook than a novel, you will come away with a lot of insight to think about later.