While the subtitle of this book announces itself as a novel, in terms of length, it more closely resembles a novella or short story, as it can be read in one sitting. But in terms of the depth of emotional involvement it manages to draw out, it reads more like a novel.
My Name Is Lucy Barton begins with the narrator Lucy recalling the time she spent nine weeks in a hospital room in New York City facing the Chrysler building. She had had an appendectomy but developed a fever. Although she was subjected to all kinds of tests, the doctors were unable to figure out what was wrong with her, so her husband asked Lucy’s mother to visit, which she immediately does. She has not seen her daughter in years. The story hinges on their relationship, bringing us back to Lucy’s childhood in a small town in Illinois, where her family suffered extreme poverty.
Suffered is the right verb here. Strout briefly lets us know what it was like for a child to be tormented at school by her classmates and teachers for being so poor. The family, which includes three children, actually lived in a unheated garage. The deprivations the children experience reminded me of Tilly Olsen’s short story, “I Stand Here Ironing.” Like Elena Ferrante, Strout shows how poverty can be stultifying and scaring. Lucy is not even allowed to cry. What saves her is that she is able to escape into books. Lucy says,
the books brought me things. This is my point. They made me feel less alone. This is my point.
We also learn that Lucy’s father was essentially destroyed by the trauma of his experience in WWII. He cannot forget the atrocities her committed on German soldiers. What Strout seems to be getting at is how the humanity of both the torturer and the victim is violated, with lasting results. Following the war, many suffering from such trauma received little or no help. The situation has not improved all that much, as we continue to hear of the PTSD of those who went to Afghanistan and Iraq.
Fortunately for Lucy, she is bright and eventually wins a college scholarship. She leaves home, graduates, and marries a man who is completing his postdoctoral studies at the university. Because he is of German origin, her father wants nothing to do with him, thus creating a serious breach between Lucy and her family.
After Lucy and her husband settle in New York and have two daughters, the emotion picks up again. Lucy has two stories published and meets the writer Sarah Payne, who has been faulted by a male critic for being “compassionate.” Lucy goes to hear Payne speak on a panel at the New York Public Library and notices the man “sitting alone in the back row.” I do like Strout’s sense of humour, her ironic use of understatement. Before long, Lucy becomes a student in Payne’s writing class. It is essentially through writing and following Payne’s advice — not to protect anyone as she writes –that Lucy is able to construct a viable and whole self.
It seems too that Lucy’s mysterious illness was caused by her need to have her mother’s love affirmed. Of course, readers understand that Lucy’s mother loves her. She has after all taken a plane on her own for the very first time in her life in order to visit her sick daughter. Since Lucy’s mother has no money for a hotel, she actually sleeps in a chair in Lucy’s hospital room. But because her mother has been so hardened by poverty and what must have been a brutal marriage, not to mention her own impoverished upbringing, she cannot bring herself to tell her daughter she loves her.
It may very well be that Lucy’s mysterious ailment was a manifestation of her need for parental love. We learn that her doctor has taken an interest in her and comes to check in on her even on the weekends, when he doesn’t work. We are told that members of his family died in the camps during the war, yet this man is still able to express love and kindness — in a word, compassion. In a sense, he becomes the positive father figure Lucy lacked.
By the end of the novel, Lucy reflects on the pain she has caused her own children and adds,
I think I know so well the pain we children clutch to our chests, how it lasts our whole lifetime, with longings so large you can’t even weep. We hold it tight, we do, with each seizure of the beating heart: This is mine, this is mine, this is mine.
What is unique, is that Strout writes, “we children.” This is no ordinary heart to heart. Strout is speaking directly from her wounded child to the reader’s. This is a beautiful and touching ending, a novel narrated with the simplicity and honesty of a child.