Tag Archives: New York

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge bowled me over and I have wanted to read My Name is Lucy Barton since it appeared last year and was so well received. Its publication in paperback was not until March this year and now I have read it.

Lucy Barton is not Olive Kitteridge.

I really enjoyed reading Olive Kitteridge, which I reviewed for the older women in fiction series last June. Two things about Olive Kitteridge appealed to me: first the main character was a rather irascible older woman, not easy to like, and the other characters found her hard to get on with. This made her a very unconventional character. Second, the structure of Olive Kitteridge was unusual. It was made up of a series of short stories, and Olive Kitteridge was not the main character in all of them. This allowed Elizabeth Strout to explore Olive Kitteridge from different viewpoints and at different times in her life.

Elizabeth Strout is a skilled writer and so she has not repeated these novelistic features in this book. With Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout has in some ways been more conventional. The main character, Lucy, is more sympathetic to the reader than grouchy Olive, being rather tentative as she recalls the time she was seriously ill in hospital.

The novel is framed by the recollections from her hospital bed. Her mother comes to visit for five days and the women talk. The narrative is structured in a series of short sections, not chapters, having no titles or numbers, each simply beginning on a new page. So it shares some of the episodic nature of her previous book, but the focus is steadily on Lucy Barton. And all of it goes to answer the implied question of the title: who is Lucy Barton?

So who is Lucy Barton?

This novel explores what has made Lucy Barton the person she is, and by implication asks the reader to consider the influences on her own life. There are three main influences:

  • Other people, especially her mother.
  • Her location, Amgash Illinois in her childhood and New York as an adult
  • Her career as a writer.

Lucy is remembering being ill in a New York hospital with complications after appendicitis. She missed her husband and young girls, and she lay looking at the Chrysler Building through her window. Her mother, who she hasn’t seen for perhaps ten years, comes to visit her from Illinois. Her mother has no sophistication, never been on an airplane before, stays sleeping in the chair in the hotel room for 5 days and night and then leaves.

The women talk, and their relationship is revealed by their conversation and by the omissions in what they say. The reader begins to see that Lucy’s uncertain identity and sense of self are built from her relationships, and childhood poverty (cultural as well as financial).

Her mother tells several stories about people they knew in the past. Most of these people have unsuccessful marriages. Some of the mother-daughter talk appears pointless, or breaks off at key moments or seems to be a repetition of a sad childhood game.

I sat up and, like a child, clapped my hands. “Mom! Do you love me, do you love me, do you love me?”

She flicked her hand at me, still looking out the window. “Silly girl,” she said and shook her head. “You silly, silly girl.”

I lay back and closed my eyes. I said, “Mom, my eyes are closed.”

“Lucy, you stop it now. “ I heard the mirth in her voice.

“Come on Mom. My eyes are closed.”

There was silence for a while. I was happy. “Mom?” I said.

“When your eyes are closed,” she said.

“You love me when my eyes are closed?”

“When your eyes are closed,” she said. And we stopped the game, but I was so happy – (135)

Other people are less important than the mother who could not tell her she loved her: her silent and hopeless father; Jeremy the artist who suggested she should be ruthless and perhaps already was; the novelist Sarah Payne who gave her advice on her writing; and her husband.

Chrysler Building, New York photo by David Shankbone, August 2008 via WikiCommons.

Lucy left the small town in Illinois for New York City, and loves its variousness, the vivid people she meets and sees. The changing view of the Chrysler Building is a delight to her, reminding her of how far she has come from her roots. She reflects however that the dark experience of her childhood remains present.

But there are times, too – 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, 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. (14)

On Sarah Payne’s writing course Lucy is struck by this comment:

And she said that her job as a writer of fiction was to report on the human condition, to tell us who we are and what we think and what we do. (98)

And Lucy has become a successful writer, but still is struggling to understand who she is and what she thinks and what she does.

I love the cover: the window is cut out to show the Chrysler Building. The designer should receive a mention.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (2016) Penguin 193pp

Long-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2016 and for the Baileys Women’s Fiction Prize 2016.

In April 2017 Elizabeth Strout will publish her latest novel in America: Anything is Possible.

Over to you

Have you read this book? Or others by Elizabeth Strout? What did you think?

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The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton was writing about New York high society at the turn of the last century in The House of Mirth. Her themes, however, resonated very strongly when I first read this novel in the 70s. Lily Bart’s  gradual descent from a young woman with prospects of a beneficial marriage to a lonely death in a boarding house reveals many aspects of life: gender, privilege, reputation, selfishness, beauty.

Published in 1905 The House of Mirth is the first novel in my decade project (see below).

The story

Lily Bart is beautiful and since birth has been encouraged to have expectations based on her looks to make a good marriage and we meet her as she puts her plans into effect. Lily has no parents and a very small income. She is 29, and her options are narrowing. When the moment arrives to clinch the rich young man Lily cannot quite bring herself to go through with it. He is dull.

From this point her story traces her gradual decline from full member of the elite rich to her death in a pokey boarding house, probably by her own hand, in less than two years.

Beset by money difficulties she accepts what turns out to be a loan from her friend’s husband. Compromised by this, she is then dragged further into potential difficulties by the machinations of Bertha Dorset, who takes her off to Europe. Here Mrs Dorset abandons her and besmirches her reputation. From there she tries to become some parvenus’ social secretary, but that also compromises her, and then as persona non grata, she tries millinery but on being laid off, because the hat season depends upon the presence of high society, she finally cannot cope.

‘Look at those spangles, Miss Bart, – every one of ’em sewed on crooked.’
From the original illustrations by AB Wanzell

She is frequently supported, not quite rescued, by Lawrence Selden. He falls in love with her, of course, but although he is from her set he hasn’t enough money for her. And although he is a true friend to her he does not save her from her trajectory.

As it turns out she is a good friend to him as well, having incriminating letters in her possession, which she destroys rather than bring him shame.

Lily Bart

Lily is an intelligent woman, with very advanced social skills. She can read and act upon every nuance of a situation. Her chief asset in the New York society is her beauty. She is aware of this, and presents herself accordingly.

We are twice given descriptions of her, both seen through Seldon’s eyes. In the opening chapter he comes across her at grand Central Station. He had not seen her for eleven years.

Seldon had never seen her more radiant. Her vivid head, relieved against the dull tints of the crowd, made her more conspicuous than in a ball-room, and under her dark hat and veil she regained the girlish smoothness, the purity of tint, that she was beginning to lose after eleven years of late hours and indefatigable dancing. (5)

The other moment occurs at a society event. Lily presents herself in a tableau as Mrs Lloyd by Joshua Reynolds, and impresses everyone present.

We learn early on that Lily had a horror of dinginess drummed into her by her mother. But she also has spirit and a certain amount of recklessness, her gambling for example, which prevents her from arranging the marriage that would secure her material future.

She has integrity and a streak of realism. Despite her damaged reputation and her financial obligations she will not become the mistress of the husbands of her friends. Nor will she resort to skulduggery despite having the means to get revenge on Bertha Dorset, her nemesis.

The themes

Lily’s story reveals the class dynamics operating in New York, but also everywhere where people believe that wealth entitles them to use other people and treat them with distain. Lily’s gradual descent through the strati of society reveal to her and to the reader just how damaging this belief in entitlement is.

Gender plays its part. More than once Lily reflects on how being a female curtails and determines what she is and is not supposed to do, and how easily an unmarried woman’s reputation can be damaged. Her friend Gerty asks Lily about the truth of the allegations against her.

Miss Bart laughed. ‘What is truth? Where a woman is concerned, it’s the story that is easiest to believe. In this case it’s a great deal easier to believe Bertha Dorset’s story than mine, because she has a big house and an opera box, and its convenient to be on good terms with her.’ (228)

The value of beauty is another theme. Lily has been taught to trade on her beauty, but people’s values are actually counted in money, houses and opera boxes. And Lily’s beauty will not last forever, she is already 29.

Lily is trapped by being prepared only for a life of advantaged marriage. As she seeks something a little more worthy of her intelligence and discernment she is punished and excluded. She has not been educated to become independent. She finds her skills limited and her understanding as narrow as anyone’s in her set. She is ashamed at her lack of skill and her inability to acquire it when she works in a millinery shop.

The book

This was Edith Wharton’s second novel and originally appeared as a serial in Scribner’s magazine. She was describing her own social milieu, and her book profoundly shocked many people. However, it sold very well.

The title is from Ecclesiastes 7:4. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. What a cruel word ‘mirth’ is, implying humour at the expense of others. Some translations substitute ‘pleasure’ for mirth.

In her minute observations of social interactions, the meanings of glances, or avoidances, Edith Wharton learned much from Jane Austen. She too is a close chronicler of the events she describes, and this book is not one to be skipped for the story, for the story is in these subtle manoeuvrings and Lily’s ability to read the situations but not to control them.

The novel was made into a film in 2000 starring Gillian Anderson and Dan Aykroyd.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. Edition used was from Penguin Modern Classic 1979. 333pp

Jacquiwine reviewed The House of Mirth in October 2014.

The Decade Project

My library had a pile of Reading Passports. I picked one up and it inspired me. To encourage reading your Reading Passport is stamped each time you complete a book from a different decade. I don’t need a passport or a stamp, but I do like the idea of selecting a book from every decade from 1900 onwards. I have decided to read one a month, from 1900s in January, from 1920s in February and so on and to review them here.

The next decade

I plan to read O Pioneers by Willa Cather for February’s choice for 1910. Please make any suggestions for subsequent decades.

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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, The Decade project