“There was a time, and it was many years ago now,” Elizabeth Strout’s slim and spectacular new novel begins, “when I had to stay in a hospital for almost nine weeks.” And it feels like she is going to tell us a story, the old-fashioned, uncomplicated kind. But only for a little while. “My Name Is Lucy Barton” is smart and cagey in every way.
It is both a book of withholdings and a book of great openness and wisdom. It starts with the clean, solid structure and narrative distance of a fairy tale yet becomes more intimate and improvisational, coming close at times to the rawness of autofiction by writers such as Karl Ove Knausgaard and Rachel Cusk. Strout is playing with form here, with ways to get at a story, yet nothing is tentative or haphazard. She is in supreme and magnificent command of this novel at all times.
Three weeks into her hospital stay, Lucy Barton wakes to find her mother at the foot of her bed. She has not seen her in years. For the next five nights, her mother sits in a chair and, with a Scheherazade-like desperation, tells Lucy stories about people from Amgash, Ill., where she raised her family in poverty. Lucy has escaped the town and the poverty and lives with her husband and two kids in New York. The Chrysler Building framed by her hospital window gleams and beckons to her as powerfully as the green light on Daisy’s dock beckons to Gatsby. The city is just beyond the glass, but Lucy, because of an infection no one can identify, no longer has access to it.
To get to this hospital room, her mother has taken her first airplane flight and made her first trip to the city. “Was it scary getting a taxi, Mom?” Lucy asks. “I have a tongue in my head, and I used it,” her mother replies, the brusque and defensive tone clearly familiar to Lucy.
But when her mother begins telling stories, her voice becomes different: rushed, compressed, “as though a pressure of feeling and words and observations had been stuffed down inside her for years.” Lucy becomes enthralled with this new voice and yearns for more. At the same time, these stories bring back memories of Lucy’s childhood in that town, where they lived as social pariahs in her uncle’s garage with no heat and “only a trickle of cold water from a makeshift sink,” and often ate molasses on bread for dinner. They bring back the abuse Lucy suffered at the hands of her parents, and these scenes are rendered briefly and acutely, as close to giving the reader the shock of the experience as one can imagine.
Here in the hospital room, at least at first, Lucy feels safe. She feels affection. She dozes off listening to the rushed voice and thinks, “All I want is this.” Later, she corrects herself:
“It turned out I wanted something else. I wanted my mother to ask about my life. I wanted to tell her about the life I was living now. Stupidly — it was just stupidity — I blurted out, ‘Mom, I got two stories published.’ She looked at me quickly and quizzically, as if I had said I had grown extra toes, then she looked out the window and said nothing. ‘Just dumb ones,’ I said, ‘in tiny magazines.’ Still she said nothing.”
The hospital has infantilized Lucy so that she can access her child self more easily, and she’s happy just to listen to her mother’s voice. But the adult wants to be known, seen, heard. Lucy’s mother is incapable of this. She is proud of her daughter but will not show it. She loves her daughter but will not say it, even when begged. She deliberately misinterprets Lucy’s motives, denies all memory of abuse and shuts down at the moments Lucy needs her the most.
Much like her mother’s new voice that compels her so, Lucy’s narration takes on the same compression, the same urgency. She is often trying to reclarify what she has said, as if the reader, like her mother, is on the verge of misunderstanding. Her attempt to tell this story is as much a struggle for her as the difficult events she is relating, as if a thick membrane separates her from all others, as if this novel is her desperate attempt to push through.
And it is. We learn that these pages we are reading are the pages of her first novel, which she began after attending a talk by a writer named Sarah Payne. If her mother was the center of gravity of Lucy’s childhood, Sarah Payne is the gravitational pull of her adulthood. Sarah’s words of advice to Lucy during a writing workshop in Arizona help us understand how to read this book:
“This is a story about a mother who loves her daughter,” Sarah says about the writing Lucy has shown her. “Imperfectly. Because we all love imperfectly. But if you find yourself protecting anyone as you write this piece, remember this: You are not doing it right.” Later, Sarah tells the class: “You will have only one story. You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one.”
You might be tempted to think that this alienated and alienating middle-aged woman is Strout’s one story — she did turn a similar character into a household name with her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “Olive Kitteridge.” But “My Name Is Lucy Barton” is the story of a daughter who loved her mother, and that is a very different story. It is also the work of a more mature writer, scaling new heights.
Sarah tells Lucy and her other students to go to the page “with a heart as open as the heart of God.” And this is precisely what Strout has done.
Lily King is the author of four novels, most recently “Euphoria.”
Reviews of Elizabeth Strout’s previous novels:
By Elizabeth Strout
Random House. 193 pp. $26