JANUARY 25, 2016
MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON, the title proclaims: — a substantive declaration, factual, objective, and yet the narrator herself is tentative, retiring, self-effacing. She is no Olive Kitteridge. Trying to see this enigmatic figure is one of the great joys of reading Elizabeth Strout’s latest novel. Paradoxically, Lucy Barton’s physical ailments catalyze the action, but it is her desire that she articulates most fervently, whether for her child, her mother, a love interest, or clothes. The novel opens with Lucy remembering her stay in the hospital when she was a young mother: “I was in a very strange state — a literally feverish waiting — and I really agonized. I had a husband and two small daughters at home; I missed my girls terribly, and I worried about them so much I was afraid it was making me sicker.” We know Lucy through her longing, through her hunger, much as we know her namesake in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette. Just who she is — the mystery behind the name and the desire — haunts the pages and the reader of Strout’s newest novel.
Names always take prominence in Strout’s works (consider the titles The Burgess Boys, Olive Kitteridge, Amy and Isabelle), and Lucy Barton is no exception. Nineteenth-century in cadence, evoking George Eliot, Wilkie Collins, and Charlotte Brontë, Lucy Barton literally means “light from the barley farm.” Indeed. This quiet, mystical novel with its shy, withdrawn heroine reminds me of a form of prayer, and as we see fragments of Lucy’s life, we see her thanksgiving for the love shown her, troubled and imperfect as it is, and her wish to escape circumstances. Though much of the novel’s action occurs in New York City, the slow and quiet tone evokes a different kind of urban place and time than the one we now know. From its start, the book is eerily, evocatively resonant; Strout takes us from the declaration of the title to a dream world, hazily, quietly sketched, recalling the landscape of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping: “There was a time, and it was many years ago now, when I had to stay in a hospital for almost nine weeks. This was in New York City, and at night a view of the Chrysler Building, with its geometric brilliance of lights, was directly visible from my bed.” Strout bestows her own powers of perceptivity upon her heroine, and Lucy’s light, like the Chrysler Building, illuminates small, often unseen, indignities and acts of love. In Strout’s hands this city of teeming millions appears quiet, magical, focused. Both Strout and Barton are New York transplants who find homes — if they are not at home themselves — in the city. The soft, slow, Didionesque rhythm of Lucy’s speech suggests we are about to hear a fairytale of Manhattan.
It is a sign of Strout’s mastery that the deceptively simple novel weaves together three story lines seamlessly: the story of young Lucy growing up impoverished in rural Illinois, the story of her reunion with her estranged mother in the hospital, and the story of her becoming a writer against the backdrop of AIDS-stricken New York in the 1980s. Unlike Olive Kitteridge, whose tales yoked together different storytellers, Lucy Barton has one narrator who floats in and out of flashbacks in poetic, lyrical vignettes. It is up to the reader to piece them together. The pleasures of this novel are twofold — they come from the detailed descriptions of place, whether of Illinois cornfields or New York streets, and concurrent attempts to understand the heroine. What is it that haunts Lucy? Why is she so melancholic, so devastatingly sad? The novel is at its best when Strout does not provide a direct answer. At times she weaves a couple too-neat narrative knots that seem frustratingly contrived, but when Strout allows herself freedom not to answer, she is, I think, at her most powerful — more Jamesian, more literary, and more nuanced.
Lucy’s 19th-century sensibility may appeal to those of us fond of triple-decker novels, but her longing, submissiveness, self-doubt, and love of shopping may put off some readers. Lucy is peculiarly feminine, wounded by personal, psychical, and social slights. Unlike Olive, the strong, strict, competent, and capable high school math teacher, Lucy is sick, uncertain, and hidden (often by choice). She has been traumatized, and if Lucy Barton uses veiled language to describe some significant moments, it is a sign, perhaps of recovery yet to come or artistic sensitivity. When we meet Lucy, she is recalling a time when she was so ill she was in the hospital for a nine-week stay; the diagnosis is never given. But while there, she yearns to connect with anyone — her mother, the nurses, her doctor, her children, and, to a certain degree, her husband. Whether we sympathize with Lucy may stem from our patience with her neediness: “whenever a nurse came to take my temperature, I tried to get her to stay for a few minutes, but the nurses were busy, they could not just hang around talking.”
That loneliness has childhood roots. The Barton family’s devastating poverty in Amgash, Illinois leads to horrible conditions whose textbook categories seem woefully inadequate: stress, psychological and physical abuse, and isolation. As many of Strout’s readers did, no doubt, when they were young, again and again, Lucy looks to others or to books for comfort. A sensitive adolescent, she finds herself reading “in the warm school … [The books] made me feel less alone. This is my point: And I thought: I will write and people will not feel so alone!” As an adult, however, she is unsure of her abilities; if you like your heroines strong, capable, and secure, this novel may challenge you.
Lucy may possess the heart of a 19th-century heroine, but she’s living (for most of the novel) in the late 20th century. She turns to men for affection and sustenance. I liked these sequences the least, finding myself more sympathetic to Lucy’s need for her mother and her daughters. Such connections are rendered with tender, heartbreaking, and painful detail. At one point Strout captures in one gesture the fierce intensity of young children’s love and their sudden fall into a world they can’t understand. Lucy is in the hospital and her five- and six-year-old daughters have come to see her:
They were really frightened. They sat with me on the bed while I dried their hair with a towel, and then they drew pictures, but with apprehension, meaning that they did not interrupt themselves every minute by saying, “Mommy, Mommy, do you like this? Mommy, look at the dress of my fairy princess!” They said very little, the younger one especially seemed unable to speak, and when I put my arms around her, I saw her lower lip thrust out and her chin tremble; she was a tiny thing, trying so hard to be brave.
Lucy is in much the same position. When her mother unexpectedly arrives, calling her “wizzle” (American slang for “a sickness in which a person needs friends or they will shrivel up and die; a person with a sad sickness”), “her being there, using my pet name, which I had not heard in ages, made me feel warm and liquid-filled, as though all my tension had been a solid thing and now was not.” Mrs. Barton’s presence temporarily, completely soothes her daughter. The mysterious power of that comfort cannot be rationalized or explained. And Lucy Barton becomes Wizzle Button (the latter her husband’s nickname for her). She has a great deal of growing to do.
The women talk around their distances: Lucy has lived in New York for years, never returning home after college. Her mother has never visited her. Strout poignantly evokes the painful awkwardness that marks their reunion in the same way she captures the love between Lucy and Becca.
In this very brief novel, there is much that is unsaid. Although William, Lucy’s husband, has flown her mother across the country to see her daughter, “about my husband, my mother asked nothing.” Lucy echoes her mother’s silences, who also “said nothing about my father, and so I said nothing about him either. I kept wishing she would say ‘Your father hopes you get better,’ but she did not.” Similarly, when Lucy asks about her older brother, who still lives at home with their parents, her mother says, “‘He spends the night with any animal that will be killed the next day … He goes into the Pedersons’ barn, and he sleeps next to the pigs that will be taken to slaughter.’ I was surprised to hear this, and I said so, and my mother shrugged.” Taking a cue from her mother, Lucy moves on, begging her mother instead to ply her with stories.
In the interstices of her mother’s telling, Lucy tells her own tales, of how the members of her family “were oddities … even in that tiny rural town of Amgash, Illinois.” Isolated by poverty, their parents’ distaste for social codes, and their father’s war memories, the children do not find allies in each other, but distance. Their poverty does not ennoble or strengthen them: “on occasion and without warning, my parents — and it was usually my mother and usually in the presence of our father — struck us impulsively and vigorously, as I think some people may have suspected by our splotchy skin and sullen disposition.” Lucy believes the villagers of Amgash suspect abuse and do nothing. The children offer no comfort to each other. Lucy speaks little with her sister Vicky and not at all with her brother: “We were not as close as you might expect; we were equally friendless and equally scorned, and we eyed each other with the same suspicion with which we eyed the rest of the world.”
Why are they so suspicious? What is the mystery? At the very beginning, Lucy writes, “No one could isolate any bacteria or figure out what had gone wrong. No one ever did.” Strout generally only hints at doom, evocatively, carefully, refusing to give her readers too pat an answer. Lucy writes of an unbidden sensation that comes
unexpected — when walking down a sunny sidewalk, or watching the top of a tree bend in the wind, or seeing a November sky close down over the East River, [and] I am suddenly filled with the knowledge of darkness so deep that a sound might escape from my mouth, and I will step into the nearest clothing store and talk with a stranger about the shape of sweaters newly arrived. 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. 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.
If the story is domestic, intimate, told through the fragments of memory like photos in a family album, it unfolds not in a vacuum but against the backdrop of international traumas. World War II, the Holocaust, and the 1980s AIDS epidemic all cast long cultural shadows across the novel. September 11 makes a brief appearance. When Lucy returns from the hospital, she is so thin “people looked at me with fear when I went down the street to get food for the children. I was furious that they looked at me with fear. It was not unlike how children on our school bus would look at me if they thought I might sit next to them.” Lucy’s starved body recalls the victims of domestic and international poverty, concentration camps, and AIDS. Lucy Barton, that fragile human being, also embodies the will to live, her love for her children, dignity, and anger; she shows us the profound personal consequences of these world events. Strout anticipates being faulted when a writer in the novel is criticized for “a [revolting and weak] ‘softness of compassion.’” But that humanity, that compassion that acknowledges our weaknesses and failings may be for many the only recourse and best hope living in the fractured circles of family and nation, and this novel serves as a beacon for lighting the way in these darkened, obscured worlds.