Long-listed for the Man Booker Prize this year, Elizabeth Strout’s daughter-mother novel, My Name is Lucy Barton, was favorably mentioned in the New York Times’ The Year in Reading by David Sedaris, Ann Patchett and Anne Tyler.
It is a subtly disquieting remembrance of a daughter’s impoverished childhood and unpacking marriage told from her hospital bed in New York City upon a five-day on expected visit from her emotionally mute mother. The characterizations shine as brilliantly as the jewel lights from the Chrysler Building outside her hospital window. The daughter is a budding writer, and this novel is her work. It is partly a tale about writing. She attends a writer’s workshop and sees the author after it.
” I’m sorry I’m so tired,” she said. “jesus, I’m almost dizzy.” She leaned forward, touching my knee lightly before she sat back. “Honestly,” she said softly, “with that last person I thought I was going to be sick. Like really throw-up sick, I’m just not cut out for this.” Then she said, “Listen to me, and listen to me carefully. What you are writing, what you want to write,” and then she leaned forward again and tapped with her finger the piece I had given her, “this is very good and it will be published. Now listen. People will go after you for combining poverty and abuse. Such, a stupid word, ‘abuse’, such a conventional and stupid word, but people will say there’s poverty without abuse, and you will never say anything. Never ever defend your work. This is a story about love, you know that. This is a story of a man who has been tortured every day of his life for things he did in the war. This is a story of a wife who stayed with him, because most wives did in that generation, and she comes to her daughter’s hospital room and talks compulsively about everyone’s marriage going bad, she doesn’t even know it, doesn’t even know that’s what she is doing. This is a story about a mother who loves her daughter. Imperfectly. Because we all love imperfectly. But if you find yourself protecting anyone as you write this piece, remember this: You’re not doing it right.”
This is a story that reflects a period of time. The AIDs crisis is full-blown. Her brother a victim. Young men populate hospital rooms. Fear and ignorance abound. A disease of itself.
“… the disease was new and no one understood how to keep it in abeyance, and so on the door of a hospital room in which a person had this illness would be a yellow sticker. I can remember them still. Yellow stickers with black lines. When I later went to Germany with William I thought of the yellow stickers in the hospital. They did not say ACHTUNG! But they were like that. And I thought of the yellow stars the Nazis made the Jews wear.”
“… I was left in a place where I could see across the hall to a room with that terrible yellow sticker on the partly opened door, and I saw a man with dark eyes and dark hair in the bed, and he was, it seemed to me, staring at me every second…..I tried to look away, to give him privacy, but each time I glanced at him again he was still staring at me. There are times still I think of those dark eyes in the face of the man lying on that bed, peering at me with what in my memory I think of as despair, begging. I have since then– it’s natural as we get older– been with people as they died, and I’ve come to recognize the eyes that burn, the very last of the body’s light to go out. In a way that man helped me that day. His eyes said: I will not look away. And I was afraid of him, of death, of my mother leaving me. But his eyes never looked away.”
Ms. Strout is keenly observant, but restrained in her prose and description. It is as passive as rolling waves with a rip tide. My sole criticism is that a very short chapter about that reflected 9/11 was distracting, although given the location of a residence it was not contrived.
The author is well-known; a recipient of many literary awards for The Burgess Boys, Olive Kitteridge, Abide with Me, and Amy and Isabelle. I strongly suggest that you read this novel. I aim to read her other works.