Such is the level of praise heaped on Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton that it is almost impossible to come to it without preconceptions. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but this wasn’t it – that’s not to say it isn’t brilliant, however. Essentially, Strout’s narrative is far more episodic than perhaps I’d been anticipating – but that is what perhaps works so perfectly, mimicking the ways memories come to us at tangents, prompted by a single sentence or an image. I took a little while to get into the rhythm of the narrative – but the language is rich and the central relationship is incredibly well-drawn.
Lucy Barton, mother to two young girls, finds herself hospitalised for a long period and this experience of enforced passivity provides the starting point for the many moments or stories she recounts. Cut off from her immediate family, she is reliant on the kindness of the medical staff, often deciding that she ‘loves’ specific individuals. At the root of her identity as a wife, mother, and writer is her difficult and impoverished childhood in rural America. Her mother, estranged from her daughter for many years, crosses states to visit her child in hospital and their exchanges, often muted emotionally but full of love on both sides, are very moving. Strout explores the tension a child, who has suffered the ignominy of grinding poverty in childhood, might experience when dealing with her feelings about her parents as an adult. We gain brief glimpses into the fears the child Lucy faces, being locked in ‘the truck’, but nothing is entirely concrete and we’re left with the sense that all memories are subjective to a degree, ‘My mother’s voice sounded surprised. “I don’t know anything about a truck,” she said. “What do you mean, your father’s old Chevy truck?”’
The novel is at its best when it dwells explicitly on the parent-child relationship. Lucy describes a marble statue in the Metropolitan Museum of Art which has had a significant impact on her, Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s Ugolino and his Sons, because of what she sees as the truth of the depiction of such a relationship, recognising ‘So that guy knew …And so did the poet who wrote what the sculpture has shown. He knew too.’ Fretting about her own daughters, whilst exploring her own feelings as a daughter, Lucy is a very memorable narrator, and this is, perhaps surprisingly given my initial misgivings, a very memorable book for all the right reasons.