by Elizabeth Strout
Random House, January 12, 2016
Reviewed by Clifford Garstang
Lucy Barton, the narrator of Elizabeth Strout’s new novel, My Name is Lucy Barton, has a story to tell. She grew up extremely poor in a dysfunctional Midwestern family, but her story is not about material deprivation. The family sometimes didn’t have enough to eat, they wore shabby clothes, and they didn’t have a television (so that now Lucy is often ignorant of popular culture references she encounters in New York City where she lives), but none of that troubles her, particularly. No, her story is about emotional deprivation, about parents who could not, or would not, show affection toward their children.
All of this and more is revealed as Lucy—in a charming, though insecure, conversational voice that says much about her character—relates what happened when she was hospitalized for nine weeks in the mid-1980s with complications from an appendectomy.
Three weeks into her stay, she is startled when her mother, whom she has not seen in many years, visits. The mother stays for five days and leaves Lucy’s side only when the doctor visits to check on her progress. During those five days, the two women speak of many of the people Lucy knew growing up in their rural community in Illinois, many of them judged harshly by the mother for their various failings. In the process, the reader shares Lucy’s much kinder memories of some of these same people as well as her own family.
Despite the coldness of Lucy’s upbringing—emotionally and physically, because there was never enough heat in the household—she is, surprisingly, full of love. She tells us that she loved (and had an affair with) one of her college professors; she loves her neighbor, Jeremy; she loved a kind neighbor boy growing up and a neighbor woman who didn’t judge them; she loved a teacher who showed her the truth about the white man’s treatment of the Indians; she loves her kind doctor in the hospital; her love for her children is almost overwhelming; later, when it’s her mother who is in the hospital, Lucy visits, kissed her mother, and tells her she loves her, something her mother could never do. It’s as if Lucy’s capacity to love is a direct result of the very lack of love she received as a child.
And while Lucy doesn’t seem to recognize this on her own, when she begins to write about her mother’s visit and shares her work with a creative writing teacher, she is told: “This is a story about love. . . This is a story about a mother who loves her daughter. Imperfectly.” It is tempting to argue that the mother doesn’t love Lucy, and in fact is incapable of love. She’s certainly incapable of expressing love, and she seems uncomfortable being on the receiving end, as well. And yet here she is, having flown halfway across the country to be with her daughter in the hospital. She can’t say the words, she can’t show it in her expression or her touch, but she’s there. So Lucy knows there is love, even if it’s “imperfect.” She also sees glimpses of her father’s imperfect love—when he forgives her for being unable to eat a candy apple that he’s splurged on and even when he tries to protect his son, whom he seems to detest, from bullies.
Lucy insists (repeatedly) that her story is not about her marriage. It’s hard to disagree with her, given the weight put on the mother’s presence and the absence of her husband, although one wonders why she feels the need to tell us this. In fact, we don’t know much about Lucy’s marriage. Her husband’s name is William, the son of a German soldier who came to the US as a prisoner of war and ran off with a farmer’s wife. We know that there are problems between Lucy and William—she frequently refers to their arguments and she also mentions another woman, her former friend—but she doesn’t dwell on those problems. And while the story is evidently not about her marriage, it is in some ways about marriage and family in general. Lucy’s mother is full of stories about marriages gone bad in their home town, and her own marriage also is a puzzle. Her husband, Lucy’s father, is, apparently, abusive and strict, yet she defends him. He suffers post-traumatic stress from the atrocities he himself committed—killing German boys—Lucy hints that he engaged in bizarre and lude behavior around the house. But their marriage has survived, and there is evidently a kind of love between them.
There are two more points to be made about this character study of Lucy Barton. First, she’s a sensitive woman who tries to avoid passing judgment on others. She herself was an outcast as a child—her clothes betrayed her family’s poverty. And so when she sees in the hospital a victim of AIDS who is labeled, as if he were a Jew in Nazi Germany, or other people who are shunned because of their situations or choices, she is saddened. Because of her husband’s heritage, the connection to the Nazis is meaningful. She remembers, too, that her writing teacher, a woman full of compassion, “talked a lot to the class about judging people, and about coming to the page without judgment.”
And finally, the image from this novel that I will long remember: Lucy is enthralled by a statue that she sees at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Strout doesn’t name the piece, but Lucy’s description makes it easy to identify: “It is a marble statue of a man with his children near him, and the man has such desperation on his face and the children at his feet appear to be clinging, begging him, while he gazes out toward the world with a tortured look.” The statue is “Ugolino and his Sons” by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, which is inspired by Dante’s Inferno. (See the image below.)
The work is described this way by the Museum:
“This intensely Romantic sculpture derives from the passage in which Dante describes the imprisonment in 1288 and subsequent death by starvation of Pisan count Ugolino della Gherardesca and his offspring. Carpeaux depicts the moment when Ugolino, condemned to die of starvation, yields to the temptation to devour his children and grandchildren, who cry out to him:
But when to our somber cell was thrown
A slender ray, and each face was lit
I saw in each the aspect of my own,
For very grief both of my hands I bit,
And suddenly from the floor arising they,
Thinking my hunger was the cause of it,
Exclaimed: Father eat thou of us, and stay
Our suffering: thou didst our being dress
In this sad flesh; now strip it all away.”
This is a powerful metaphor for Lucy’s relationship to her mother, for whom she would do anything, including sacrificing her own flesh, although ultimately Lucy is unable to save her.
My Name is Lucy Barton is a nuanced character portrait of a complex woman, a product, as we all are, of her background and experience. As with Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel in stories, Olive Kitteridge, the reader comes to know and appreciate the main character, even if we never quite come to like her. Like Olive, Lucy changes over the course of the narrative. She exposes the truth, at least the truth as she understands it, warts and all. But unlike Olive, one of the great characters in modern literature, Lucy refuses to pass judgment.