Book Review: ‘My Name is Lucy Barton,’ By Elizabeth Strout

A bite-sized novel whose exquisite prose can’t quite transcend its bland protagonist.

Elizabeth Strout strikes me as every stereotype of what the moderately well-read American thinks a ‘serious’ literary novelist to be.  Beginning life as a wispy-haired child on the New England coast, she knew from an early age what she wanted to do with her life. Later, as a wispy-haired adult, she spends her days teaching at an obscure liberal arts college, writing stories about the emotionally disaffected. My first foray into her work, ‘My Name is Lucy Barton, is precisely the kind of book one would expect such an author to write.

We begin with the eponymous narrator, recalling a few days she spent in a New York City hospital, recovering from what was supposed to be a routine appendectomy. At the request of Lucy’s husband her mother flies in from rural Illinois to be with her, prompting Lucy to recall her impoverished childhood, eating nothing but molasses on bread for dinner, being mocked for not bathing, having to live with her family in a garage until she was eleven. From there the story jumps back and forth between various episodes in her life: college,  attending workshops with a famous author, the AIDs crisis of the Eighties, etc. The stark language Strout uses to weave her way through this stream of consciousness narrative lulls the reader into a state where they are easily susceptible to the novel’s atmospheric charms. There is a certain calmness to the book, a regal elegance that makes it easily digestible, but also work against it in certain ways. The entire story is told to us in Lucy’s voice. Generally, this serves to build intimacy with the audience. However, the simplicity of the language used is insufficient to convey the emotional depth necessary to become properly invested in her character. What is more, it provides glaring inconsistency with her backstory: someone who is college educated and makes their living as a writer should be able to more richly vocalize the psychological nuances within her head.

Lucy’s imparts her journey with a resigned stoicism that makes her frustrating as a protagonist, we see the full breadth of her life from childhood into middle age, and yet never truly feel like we know her: the dramatic contrast between Lucy’s humble beginnings and her transformation into a cultured member of New York’s literary scene is harrowing, but only to a point, as the watery sketch she draws of herself robs transformative moments of much of their cerebral heft. This broad-strokes-approach is most problematic in how the novel deals with Lucy’s estranged relationship with her mother. Lucy experienced abuse at the hands of her parents, including frequent insults from her mother – when Lucy began to develop breasts, her mother told her ‘You look like a cow’ – and being forced to spend nights locked pickup truck as punishment. Being forced to stay in the same room as her abuser draws up a bevy of complex emotions in Lucy, while she is intrigued by the stories her mother has to tell about life back home, she feels a palpable need to address the bad blood between the two of them, but just can’t bring herself to; she tries to get her mother to say she loves her, but can’t muster enough assertiveness. Throughout the novel, Lucy remains detached, devoid of personality, a character type, not a character.

For all the faults in ‘My Name is Lucy Barton,’ one aspect which is undeniable while reading it is the skill of its author, Strout demonstrates a keen ear for style in her prose, as-well-as a superb gift for crafting realistic dialogue. As with any artist, to judge Strout’s entire body of work against the weight of one piece would be a diseased way of thinking – especially since I haven’t read anything else by her – in this novel I see an intelligent, sensitive writer, who had the ambition to craft a provocative character study, but instead wrote the literary equivalent of a spring roll, light, tasty, but not substantial enough to be thoroughly satisfying.

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