In ‘Lucy Barton,” a woman tries to figure herself out

So, for those who have been following along, I’ve spent almost two months now reading “Bleak House” as part of my 2016 Classics Challenge. I like it, and it’s coming along, sort of, but it’s a book I have no trouble putting aside to read something else, or play 2048 on my phone (thanks a lot, kids), or making myself apoplectic over the state of the presidential race.

barton.jpgSo, in my breaks from Dickens’ masterpiece (or so everyone says, and it is, truly, extremely enjoyable), I’ve been reading other things. Every day for the next week, I will postone review of a book I’ve read or listened to since the start of this year. You’ll see I haven’t been slacking.

First up: “My Name Is Lucy Barton.”

I like Elizabeth Strout, whose “Olive Kittridge,” a collection of short stories all featuring one conflicted and compelling woman, won the Pulitzer Prize a few years back. Read that book if you haven’t. It’s compelling. I read her subsequent novel, “The Burgess Boys,” an equally complicated story about family secrets. Being an honest book—though not a particularly compelling one—the secrets are less salacious and more personal. The characters do stupid things which lead them and, one could say, the novel down a dead-end path.

So when I saw Strout had a new novel out, I added my name to the hold list at the library. It of course, came when I was least expecting it, but I couldn’t pass up my opportunity, and it was a nice respite from Dickens.

In simple language, Strout’s main character, Lucy, tells a stream-of-consciousness version of her life. Its center is an extended stay in a hospital while doctors try to figure out what’s wrong with her, physically. Lucy looks back at her own life and tries to figure out what is wrong emotionally.

One morning, a few weeks into the nine-week stay, Lucy awakes to find her mother sitting at the foot of her hospital bed. It’s something of a surprise, as the two have not seen each other in more than eight years, and they talk only sporadically. There was no precipitating event to the falling out, just the accumulated injuries (both emotional and physical) of a lifetime of living and feeling misunderstood.

There’s no way of saying this nicely: Lucy’s a mess, thanks to her parents. “Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me,” she writes. Lucy is afraid she will damage her children, in that unending way we have of passing down our failings for our children to deal with and she thinks, half-heartedly, that if she can understand her mother, she can fix herself.

She and her mother share stories, all of which seem to end with an unhappy marriage, to pass the time in the hospital and Lucy lets us in on her past (but is it the truth or a child’s truth, with no context, it’s difficult to tell), and her future, as the book is written in present day and the hospital stay was long ago.

Strout’s strength, in addition to her painfully honest writing in which we can often see ourselves, is in creating characters that you don’t like, but whom you come to care about. Lucy doesn’t get any closer to figuring out her mother than she does figuring out herself, but in the end, that’s not necessarily what matters.

Early on, Lucy thinks: “This must be the way most of us maneuver through the world, half knowing, half not, visited by memories that can’t possibly be true. But when I see others walking with confidence down the sidewalk as though they are free completely from terror, I realize I don’t know how other are. So much of life seems speculation.

By the end, the title feels like a validation: I am Lucy Barton, flawed, take me as I am or don’t. And we will take her, because Strout makes her a mirror in which we see ourselves.

While not as memorable as “Olive,” (I still think about some of the images and stories in that book) Lucy is someone who will stay with you for a while.

 

 

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