BookPage Fiction Top Pick, January 2016
It is impossible to explain fully the beautiful, haunting emotional power of Elizabeth Strout’s new novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton. Magic? Genius? Certainly much of its power arises from the mesmerizing voice of Lucy Barton, teller of this tale. And much of it comes from the details of the story she slowly unfolds. Another piece of the explanation surely lies in the gaps in Lucy’s story that we readers must bridge with our own empathy and imagination. Still, My Name Is Lucy Barton is much larger and far more resonant than the sum of these parts.
The story begins with Lucy, now a published fiction writer, remembering a time, 20 or more years ago, when she was felled by an undiagnosable disease, a sort of visitation of sickness, and ended up in a New York City hospital for a prolonged stay. She was anguished to be separated from her two young daughters and her somewhat distant husband. Then, her mother, whom Lucy had not spoken to in years, came from Illinois to stay with her at the hospital. Their loving, gossipy conversations evoke conflicting emotions and vivid, if often understated, memories in Lucy about her and her siblings growing up in abject poverty, in a household rife with mental illness and abuse. The lifelong effects of that emotional and economic impoverishment, even for Lucy, the successful sibling, infuse her story in unexpected ways.
Toward the end of the book, as Lucy begins to write about the visit from her mother and her childhood memories, a writing teacher tells her: “People will go after you for combining poverty and abuse. Such a stupid word, ‘abuse,’ such a conventional, stupid word. . . . This is a story about love.”
My Name Is Lucy Barton is indeed about love, or really, the complexity of misshapen familial love. It is also a story of lasting emotional damage and resilience, and a writer’s commitment to the truth. The novel is also full of keen observations about how childhood travels forward into adulthood. Strout, who won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Olive Kitteridge, has written a profound novel about the human experience that will stay with a reader for a long, long time.