Elizabeth Strout’s fiction has long captured families loving each other as humans do: imperfectly. And that is the eternal truth as Strout sees and writes it: we do the best we can, as awkward or graceful as that proves to be. That same grace and compassion bless all of Strout’s novels, from her triumphant debut, Amy and Isabelle, to My Name Is Lucy Barton, her most recent, revelatory short novel.
“I’ve always been drawn to parental relations, parents interacting with and engaged by their children,” Strout says. “My second novel, Abide with Me, presents a powerful father and daughter relationship. So the world of parents and children is an intense storehouse for fiction. And the relationship between a mother and child is the most primal relationship we can have: a child’s first view of the world comes from the mother figure.”
Strout’s first novel, Amy and Isabelle, won her many fans, including Nobel winner Alice Munro. The extended family drama of her third novel, or series of interconnected stories, Olive Kittredge, earned a Pulitzer and was turned into an acclaimed, Emmy-winning HBO series starring the remarkable Frances McDormand. Family tensions and changing American demographics underlie the plot of The Burgess Boys. This latest work by Strout promises to win her an even larger readership.
My Name Is Lucy Barton covers almost all of Lucy’s lifetime, from her hardscrabble childhood through the opportunities provided by school and books to upper-middle-class respectability in marriage and, finally, the windfalls of an independent career as a successful writer. Strout carefully and generously examines the American class system. “I write a lot about class in my fiction, and I wanted, in this novel, to distill that spectrum of class structures through one character,” Strout says.
The heart of the narrative is Lucy’s nine-week hospital stay in the mid-1980s for a mysterious infection. In that period, events are set in motion: the seeds of her marriage’s ongoing tensions, her developing sense of herself as having a story to tell as a human being and writer, and a reopening of her childhood. That last development is provided by Lucy’s mother, who makes a five-day visit, patiently sitting by Lucy’s bedside, present at a time when Lucy needs her. This adult illness serves as a mirror to Lucy’s childhood wounds—the basis for so many of Lucy’s adult insecurities. But a sense of healing or peacemaking is initiated over these days, with a mother tending, through the lens of memory and story, to a daughter’s needs.
The spine of the novel, the mother’s visit, comprises two-thirds of its pages. But the rhythm of those pages includes swells into the future as well as tidal tugs into the memories of the girl growing up as one of the poorest children in her Midwestern rural town—so poor she stayed at school to read because the rooms of the school building were heated. After her mother’s departure, Lucy will remain in the hospital for additional weeks, and in the final third of the novel, Lucy narrates the mortality of too many endings over the intervening years: family members, relationships, the twin towers. As Lucy lives, she bears witness to the deaths that are ongoing in life.
Another key component of the novel is the figure of a writer, Sarah Payne, who serves as a double of sorts to Lucy and as a mentor. Lucy meets Payne initially in a random encounter at a New York clothing store, one in which Payne is hesitant to name herself. Lucy later attends a discussion with her at the New York Public Library, at which Lucy hears Payne talk about the difference between the persona of a character and the person of the novelist. Payne provides a comic response to an audience member’s question about whether the character in Payne’s novel was a mouthpiece for Payne’s views of a president: Payne differentiates between the person of the writer and the persona of the character but admits that as a “citizen of this country,…the woman I made up lets him [the President] off quite easily.” (Perhaps Strout has done the same in not naming which of several presidents Payne might be considering, though Reagan fits the timeline nicely.)
Finally, Lucy works with Payne at a writers’ retreat. Payne’s advice to the assembled writers, to “come to the page without judgment” each day of writing, might serve as an epigraph to this novel and to Strout’s own body of fiction. Lucy stayed at school for the warmth of the schoolroom and, as Strout puts it, “through the characters she encounters in her reading, to feel less alone herself.” Lucy’s impulse toward her own writing, a theme in this novel, is, Strout continues, “to make others feel less alone.” And the quality of “compassion” that one reader of Payne’s work cites is what appears to sustain Lucy’s own writing and attitude toward others. There’s nothing soft about this attitude; it’s the fullness and mystery of life that should lead toward this worldview of human nature, one found in Strout’s work as a whole.
Sarah Payne is unable to readily provide Lucy with her name when they first meet in that clothing shop. From the title of the novel to its conclusion, Lucy does not hesitate to name herself and to assert herself, with a full understanding of her strengths and weaknesses. As Strout explains, “Lucy possesses agency in and for her life.” Many of the sections end, as a fable might, with homespun morals and human truths. “This quality is part of Lucy’s personality because of what she has experienced in life,” Strout says. The title serves as an introduction, as if in a greeting: allow me to introduce myself to you. In the writing of this book, Lucy calls this book we read an “account” and a “record”—attempts toward an understanding and reckoning. This self-reflexive quality is one that draws the reader to empathize with Lucy and her story—her life.
And it’s a life that transcends the reductive circumstances of Lucy’s background. It’s a life that allows for the range of human potential, including setbacks and successes. As Strout explains, “I’m interested in writing for and about people who can rise beyond fated circumstances.” Lucy Barton is Strout’s first foray into writing a novel in first person. “I love different points of view,” she says. “But in the writing of this work, I found myself drawn to the tone of a single woman’s voice, Lucy’s voice, drawn to who she is and what she says.”
Payne’s role as writing mentor informs Lucy of two other key points: that we each have our own stories (as Payne explains to Lucy, “Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one”) and that this book Lucy is writing, the initial pages of which she shared with Payne years earlier at the writers’ retreat, is “a story about love,” for family, for doctors, for friends, “the love we give others when we attend to them with our attention and person,” Strout explains.
And that’s the story that matters most: Lucy’s gift.
J.W. Bonner teaches in the Humanities Department at Asheville School in Asheville, North Carolina.