Skip to main content

My Name Is Lucy Barton


My Name Is Lucy Barton

MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON is a title that announces itself with "Call me Ishmael" forthrightness. And Elizabeth Strout’s haunting new novel is, in fact, a kind of book-within-a-book, framed as a memoir or possibly an autobiographical novel. It is brief (207 pages) but memorably intense, with an eponymous protagonist who is a worthy successor to Olive Kitteridge.   

Winning the Pulitzer Prize may give a writer a certain freedom to experiment. MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON, in any case, while eventful and certainly not plotless, has an idiosyncratic, nonlinear structure. Its core is Lucy’s lengthy stay in a New York City hospital (complications following an appendectomy) and the five-day surprise visit she receives from her mother (“surprise” because she is barely in touch with her family). This interlude becomes the lens through which Lucy contemplates her life, past and future. The story unfolds in an elliptical, almost kaleidoscopic pattern, as if we are collecting random shards of her memory. But nothing is random in this exquisitely subtle book.

I’m afraid I’m making MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON sound “hard” the way Virginia Woolf’s fiction can be hard: cryptic, elusive. It is nothing of the kind. Somehow Strout makes Lucy’s recollections seem natural, as if she is free-associating, while taking care to orient the reader as to time and place. The novel is not obscure, but it is genuinely mysterious.

Lucy’s mother is compellingly enigmatic. On the one hand, here is a woman who lives in rural Illinois, where Lucy grew up, and has never before taken an airplane. Nevertheless, she flies to New York to be with her daughter. Endearingly, she calls Lucy by her pet name, Wizzle, and refuses a cot, keeping watch from a chair at her bedside all night, every night. “Her being there…made me feel warm and liquid-filled,” Lucy thinks, “as though all my tension had been a solid thing and now was not.” When Lucy urges her to sleep, her mother says she took catnaps throughout her childhood: “You learn to, when you don’t feel safe.” But safe from what? The implication is that Lucy’s mother was somehow abused (though shorthand of that sort is the very opposite of what this book defines as honest writing).

"MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON evokes shades of feeling so accurately and unsentimentally that moralizing labels, too often applied to everything from childhood to marriage, begin to seem both clunky and wrong. The book reveals the world in all its complexity: the humanity along with the cruelty, the beauty as well as the pain."

The contradictions arrive when we learn, through Lucy’s recollections, that this dream mother verged on nightmare. The family was desperately poor. The parents hit the children. Lucy’s mother made shaming remarks about her adolescent body. And she failed to protect her against “the Thing,” Lucy’s term for unnamed, probably sexual episodes involving her volatile father.

Lucy was raised “with so little --- only the inside of my head to call my own” that she learned to live in her imagination, and that turns out to be a great strength. She discovers books (“They made me feel less alone”) and determines to write her own; she goes to college and moves to New York. When her mother asks how she can live in the city, without sky, she replies, “There’s people instead.”

In New York, Lucy marries, has two daughters, and becomes a successful writer who tries to tell the truth about her life. But what is the truth? No great revelations mark the visit. For the most part, Lucy and her mother speak in an odd coded language. They give nicknames to the nurses and chat about hometown scandals, stories of women with failed marriages --- perhaps a reflection of her parents’ troubled relationship, or an anticipation of the time that Lucy will leave her own husband and children (as her mother did not).

Clearly, the visit is important to them both. Lucy says over and over how happy it makes her. Yet her mother’s love is ambiguous and oddly inarticulate; she is both warm and apparently cold. Lucy accepts that: “I feel that people may not understand that my mother could never say the words I love you. I feel that people may not understand: It was all right.”  

That’s the thing about family: It has you whether you like it or not. As Lucy puts it, “our roots were twisted…tenaciously around one another’s hearts.” That is true also of her own daughters, so angry and distant after the divorce. Yet one of them, Becka, in a moment of pure terror --- when she sees the second plane hit on the morning of September 11 --- cries out “Mommy!”

It could be Lucy calling for her own mother.

Strout seems to be saying that both tenderness and ruthlessness are required for a woman to find her own way --- and for a writer to tell her own truth. Lucy has a sort of radar for other people’s pain, fatigue, desperation. Yet that’s not enough; to evolve as a writer, she also needs to be tough. Sarah Payne, a writer and teacher who becomes important to Lucy, tells her: “If you find yourself protecting anyone as you write this piece, remember this: You’re not doing it right.”

Lucy’s narrative voice has a wonderful sense of detail and texture; it’s naturally poetic. But I don’t mean “poetic” in the sense of fancy literary language; the beauty is more in the cadence of her sentences. Considering kids she sees in the subway, she writes, “[O]nce in a while I see a child crying with the deepest of desperation, and I think it is one of the truest sounds a child can make.” Or this, remembering the day she took her husband home to meet her parents: “[I]t was early June, and the soybeans were on one side, a sharp green, lighting up the slighting sloping fields with their beauty, and on the other side was the corn, not yet as high as my knees, a bright green…..”

At the very end of the novel, Strout comes back to Lucy’s vision of her childhood home: “[T]he land closest to the setting sun would get dark, almost black against the orange line of the horizon, but if you turn around, the land is still available to the eye with such softness, the few trees, the quiet fields of cover crops already turned, and the sky lingering, lingering, then finally dark. As though the soul can be quiet for those moments.” The choice to end on this note is meaningful, for despite the gloom of Lucy’s past, she is able to recall the radiance of the farmland around her small, mean house --- the same house in which she felt such anguish.

In this, Lucy --- and Strout herself --- is following another piece of advice from Sarah Payne: to “come to the page without judgment.” MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON evokes shades of feeling so accurately and unsentimentally that moralizing labels, too often applied to everything from childhood to marriage, begin to seem both clunky and wrong. The book reveals the world in all its complexity: the humanity along with the cruelty, the beauty as well as the pain.

Reviewed by Katherine B. Weissman on January 14, 2016

My Name Is Lucy Barton
by Elizabeth Strout

  • Publication Date: October 11, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0812979524
  • ISBN-13: 9780812979527