Summed up in a sentence, the plot of Elizabeth Strout’s new novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton, sounds like a snooze: Two women sit together in a hospital room for several weeks, catching up on old neighbours and creating nicknames for nurses. But the two women are mother and daughter, which infuses even the dullest setting with drama. More specifically, they are Lucy, a bright, anguished writer who years before fled her poor, rural family for a college scholarship and then work in New York City, and her taciturn mother, from whom she had been long estranged. Very little is said in that hospital room, but everything is felt. Unspoken resentments and longings inflect the pair’s chit-chat and gossip.
This is the particular brilliance of bestselling, Pulitzer Prize–winning Strout (Olive Kitteridge and The Burgess Boys), who writes about troubled families and the push-pull of blind love and old wounds with startling precision and vividness. In fewer than 200 pages, Strout provides just enough details of Lucy’s upbringing to explain her adult skittishness: the bone-aching chill of her family’s unheated home, the creative cruelties of her war-traumatized father, the inability of her defeated mother to summon the protective love that might have served as a buffer against those deprivations. “Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in life,” Lucy recollects.
After escaping her family, Lucy made a good life for herself, meeting a decent man who loves her and becoming a successful novelist. But it’s a life that she can only partially inhabit. Her family sees her advancement as abandonment, and Lucy feels like an alien in her shiny new existence. Even her husband’s steadfastness cannot make her feel at home. “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,” Lucy says about the darkness that can suddenly envelop her. “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 others are. So much of life seems speculation.”
Most of the book is set as a flashback from the present day to the mid-1980s, when Lucy is in her 20s and hospitalized for nine weeks for a mysterious infection following an appendectomy. Her husband is stuck at home caring for their two young daughters, so he invites Lucy’s mother to keep her company. Her mother’s bedside vigil is experienced like a fever dream, or a visitation by a ghost. Their reticence brings tension even to their moments of affection, and all of it is marked by the revelation that Lucy later leaves her husband, a decision her grown children cannot forgive. This is the rotting trunk of the family tree: two generations of mothers and daughters who crave and repel each other with equal force.
A near perfect, wholly heartbreaking novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton concedes that sometimes the best we can hope for is acceptance, not reconciliation. Lucy may be unable to shake her past, but she can keep moving forward.
My Name Is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout, $34.