Writing from the perspective of the mentally handicapped without falling under the shadow of The Sound And The Fury is a difficult task. Benjy Compson is one of American literature’s greatest characters, and William Faulkner depicts him so perfectly that anyone who tries a similar project will undoubtedly raise comparisons. Dear Lucy is no exception; from the first page, Julie Sarkissian’s tale about a special-needs girl who lives on a farm alludes to the Faulkner masterpiece. But instead of taking a familiar setup in a new direction, Sarkissian plows right into Faulkner’s wheelhouse, tackling issues of gender, perspective, incest, and family. Playing on such well-worn ground only makes Dear Lucy pale in comparison.
After her behavior becomes too much of a burden for her mother, Lucy moves to a farm run by an elderly couple only known as Mister and Missus. The couple also houses a pregnant teenager named Samantha, with the agreement that when the child is born they will raise it. As Samantha becomes more distant, Lucy befriends a newly hatched chicken she calls Jennifer. Jennifer speaks to Lucy in English, and is soon a friend and confidant, providing an interlocutor for Lucy’s thoughts. When Samantha gets closer to her due date, she begins to regret her decision, and soon leans on Lucy to concoct a plan to keep her child.
While Lucy is the primary narrator in the novel, certain chapters toggle to Samantha’s or Missus’ perspective. Sarkissian is a fine prose stylist, and the three voices in the novel are distinct. Her writing manages to be poetic without ever veering off into preciousness, especially in the sections where Lucy narrates. But it’s never clear what Samantha and Missus bring to the story, aside from some background information that could have easily been introduced in Lucy’s chapters. It feels as if Sarkissian has multiple narrators because that’s typical of books in this genre, rather than for any integral reason.
The irrelevancy of the multiple narrators is one aspect of the book’s larger problem: Sarkissian clearly hasn’t thought through her novel. Both the plot and characters are half-baked, germs of what might make good fiction put on the page before they’re fully realized.
Lucy particularly is an enigma. Stricken by some sort of mental issue (Autism? Retardation? It’s too hard to tell.), she has a limited vocabulary and an inability to grasp many basic concepts, especially social ones. But Jennifer, who is heavily implied to be a part of Lucy’s consciousness (only Lucy can hear her), can read and speak fluently with no trouble at all. Sarkissian wants it both ways: a main character who is too impaired to function normally in the world, but also with hidden potential to understand human life and emotion. Lucy never shows an inkling of intelligence, so Jennifer’s erudition makes no sense. Perhaps there are conditions where a person’s inner conversationalist has significantly more mental prowess than she does, but without defining how and why Jennifer is able to be so smart, she seems more like a cheap trick than a real possibility.
One of the major reasons it’s so hard to get a handle on Lucy’s issues is that the novel never makes the setting clear. Dear Lucy could easily take place in the present day or the 1930s. Each time period comes with its own norms about the mentally impaired, but Sarkissian never grapples with them, instead creating a nebulous world where readers might wonder why social services haven’t been called. Is it because they don’t exist, or because Lucy’s mother doesn’t want to use them? These bits of information are relevant to understand Lucy’s situation, but Sarkissian pays them absolutely no mind. It means that Lucy comes across as more of an idea than a real person, clearly saddled with troubles but without the context for readers to understand what those troubles amount to.
Lucy’s lack of authenticity as a character might be alleviated if the book had a plot to speak of, but Dear Lucy moves at a glacial pace. At more than 300 pages, the novel is too long to have so little happen in it. Ironically, it’s in this regard that Sarkissian should have stayed closer to Faulkner. The Sound And The Fury and As I Lay Dying are commended for their achievements in form and prose, but they’re also expertly plotted. Faulkner was well aware that even with a fully realized character (which Lucy is not), that character actually has to do something for her story to come alive. Sarkissian eventually gets around to letting Lucy act, but it’s far too late. The dozens of idle moments stuck on the farm have already destroyed whatever propulsion the narrative began with.
Sarkissian is obviously trying to join the pantheon of American literature that depicts rural life, but she’s done nothing to distinguish Dear Lucy from anything that’s come before. Without a forceful, human protagonist, and a functioning plot, the book is left as an overly long character sketch.