My Name Is Lucy Barton begins by looking back: “There was a time, and it was many years ago now, when I had to stay in a hospital for almost nine weeks.” During this somewhat arbitrary and isolated space, the narrator’s estranged mother appears and the two of them spend five days together, gossiping about people from their pasts—mostly women whose marriages have, for one reason or another, failed. Lucy takes great pleasure in these talks, even though a dark undercurrent runs beneath their words—the extreme poverty of her childhood, her mother’s physical abuse, her father’s alcoholism, and worse.
During this time, Lucy reflects on other relationships: a professor from college with whom she had a brief affair, a neighbor with whom she had an oblique but profound connection, a former writing teacher, her current doctor. All of these people she loves. In fact, she seems so full of love it comes bursting out of her in unexpected ways: She loves her sixth-grade English teacher, a Native American man she reads about, a woman who is kind to her in a cake shop, a boy who opens a door for an older woman in a waiting room. And she loves her mother, despite the fact that her mother cannot say she loves her daughter in return.
There is love and there is loss—friends die, marriages struggle, illness strikes, loneliness threatens—but not much happens in this quiet novel; instead, it is almost entirely driven by Lucy’s voice. Because her voice is strong—some have aptly compared it to a Brontë heroine’s—it carries a lot of weight, but there’s something still elusive about this book. Lucy might be guilty of something she accuses another writer of: “I can’t stop the sense that she stays away from something.” Much is hinted at that never becomes fully realized. This is both a strength—as it reflects a reality seldom portrayed in fiction—but also a challenge to readers who may feel unsettled by its lack of certainty.
Still, My Name Is Lucy Barton features gorgeous writing; Lucy herself is a writer, which allows Elizabeth Strout’s words to sing through her. Many times Lucy combines the lofty and the low in ways that resonate with both the beauty and the ordinary of everyday life:
There are times now, and my life has changed so completely, that I think back on the early years and I find myself thinking: it was not that bad. Perhaps it was not. 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. This must be the way most of us maneuver through the world, half knowing, half not…
Much of the book is like this—moments of grace and understanding tempered with moments of brutality and disappointment—with the reader half knowing and half not. But Lucy’s voice remains buoyant throughout, at times effusive, at times pensive, but always drawing us to who she is, who she loves, and who she longs to be.