I read My Name is Lucy Barton before and after Snowzilla. Like all of Elizabeth Strout’s books, it is about family relationships, up close, detailed, bits hauled after the characters who aren’t even sure they’re hauling it, let alone knowing whether to let it go.
Like all but The Burgess Boys, which is current and immediate, this book has an air of being set in the past. In the case of Lucy, her life is brought up to date, but much of what happens is past, processed by the narrator. I mention this because I find it a pleasant narrative technique, a bit lulling, which often means the punches hit their mark.
The book opens with Lucy in the hospital with a serious ailment that is never explained. Her husband has called her mother and paid for a ticket from Illinois to New York. Lucy hasn’t seen her mother in years. Her mother has never seen Lucy’s children. Yet the two still have a common past and they begin to talk in that way you can with someone known well, no matter how many years ago.
The conversation covers people known long ago, former friends, parents of friends, her mother’s dress making clients, townspeople. They don’t talk of Lucy’s father or her siblings or the family troubles that are slowly revealed. Nor do they talk of the grinding poverty that Lucy escaped because a teacher worked to get her a college scholarship. Hers is a story of escape and the costs of escaping, which can be distance from family, insecurity and uncertainty entailed in a meteoric rise from poverty to the upper middle class.
It is also a story about love, its ties and forms, and what it bears. Some years after her mother’s visit, when Lucy’s husband treats her to a writing workshop in Arizona, she presents the story for the teacher’s review. The writer acknowledges their masterful telling, and then she warns Lucy that people who read the stories will talk about poverty and abuse and that Lucy must remember that the stories her mother told at her hospital bed were all about love, its survival and its failure.
For me, the whole book is about love. If you have enough, you’re okay, not enough, and you may not think you’re loveable or worthy and it may take a while to form a self that is comfortable in the world. In Lucy’s case the uncertainty of the love she carried from home was compounded by poverty that left her unfamiliar with things others her age took for granted. She is impressed by people who move through the world with confidence. It’s nice to see how she comes to her own confidence.
This book just came out in the U.S. and is not yet available in the UK, but I think it will be in a few months. I recommend it, whether you have to wait or not.