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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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews

6 Responses to My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

  1. Thanks for a helpful review – I found this a brilliant but quite difficult book.Agree about Olive Kitteridge ( and have you seen the mini series which was also a prize winner?)
    I love everything by Elizabeth Stroud, but I think my favourite is her earlier novel The Burgess Boys.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for this comment. I enjoyed the mini series of Olive Kitteridge, but I also thought it had nothing like the depth and anguish of the book. I agree that Lucy Barton is challenging, but it confirms to me that she is an excellent writer. I have to read The Burgess Boys but I am thinking that I will put it on my tbr pile.

  2. I loved Olive Kitteridge, partly because she had so many faults and failings, which made her complex and entertaining, and also because of the clever way the novel was structured in short story style. I liked Lucy Barton, but was less gripped by her personality. I found the perspective from the hospital bed made her seem rather passive at first, but the novel was very well-written and as her story unfolded, I gradually became more fascinated by her and was moved most by the mother sitting determinedly in that chair. Overall, Olive is the one I would re-read. She is one of my favourite literary characters.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for this comment Joanna. I agree, the image of the mother sitting in the hospital chair, fearful of all that modernity in New York, that’s an abiding and powerful image. The strength in Lucy Barton, for me, was in the slow unfurling of the character through the people who were still in her life, but more significant when she was a child. Interesting to look at it from that midway point in her life, and from the hospital bed.
      I agree about Olive Kitteridge – a great fictional character, warts and all. I was so pleased to read that novel last year.

  3. Mickey Reid

    I have read Olive Kitteredge but not My name is Lucy Barton, yet. I did read Abide With Me. It is beautifully written, a pleasure to read, but so very sad through most of the book. Well, it tells a sad story, so we have to accept that. The story is about a youngish clergyman, his family and his parishioners in a small town in Maine. It talks about ordinary life, with the good and the bad. A wonderful read.
    I am looking forward to reading Strout’s first novel, Amy and Isabelle, about a mother and her teenaged daughter. A treat, I’m sure.
    Thanks for your reviews of two of Strout’s books, and so many more you have included. I trust your opinion.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for adding your comments, Mickey. I can see that Elizabeth Strout is a highly regarded author. I don’t know Abide with me but I guess I should put it with The Burgess Boys on my tar pile!
      Isabelle and Amy is quite disturbing. But like her other books, it chronicles authentic people in difficult circumstances, and not always behaving well.
      Please come back and tell us what you think of My Name is Lucy Brton, when you have red it. I am looking forward to reading Anything is Possible, her next book

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