From Pulitzer Prize–winning Strout (The Burgess Boys, 2013, etc.), a short, stark novel about the ways we break and maintain the bonds of family.
The eponymous narrator looks back to the mid-1980s, when she goes into the hospital for an appendix removal and succumbs to a mysterious fever that keeps her there for nine weeks. The possible threat to her life brings Lucy’s mother, from whom she has been estranged for years, to her bedside—but not the father whose World War II–related trauma is largely responsible for clever Lucy’s fleeing her impoverished family for college and life as a writer. She marries a man from a comfortable background who can’t ever quite quiet her demons; his efforts to bridge the gap created by their wildly different upbringings occupy some of the novel’s saddest pages. As in Olive Kittredge (2008), Strout peels back layers of denial and self-protective brusqueness to reveal the love that Lucy’s mother feels but cannot express. In fewer than 200 intense, dense pages, she considers class prejudice, the shame that poverty brings, the AIDS epidemic, and the healing powers—and the limits—of art. Most of all, this is a story of mothers and daughters: Lucy’s ambivalent feelings for the mother who failed to protect her are matched by her own guilt for leaving the father of her two girls, who have never entirely forgiven her. Later sections, in which Lucy’s dying mother tells her “I need you to leave” and the father who brutalized her says, “What a good girl you’ve always been,” are almost unbearably moving, with their pained recognition that the mistakes we make are both irreparable and subject to repentance. The book does feel a bit abbreviated, but that’s only because the characters and ideas are so compelling we want to hear more from the author who has limned them so sensitively.
Fiction with the condensed power of poetry: Strout deepens her mastery with each new work, and her psychological acuity has never required improvement.