Book review – I am Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Viking

published 2016i-am-lucy-barton

Ever feel like you’re always the last one on the great book bandwagon? I do. For some time now I’ve heard the praises sung of Elizabeth Strout’s I am Lucy Barton that  I added it to my ‘to read’ pile for 2017 only to stumble across a copy at my local charity shop. I sat to read this with the intension of only reading a page or two and before I knew it I’d finished the whole thing.

From the writer of the Pulitzer prize-winning Oliver Kitteridge comes this tale of a relationship between a daughter and her mother. Lucy, the narrator, is reflecting back on the nine weeks she spent in a hospital in New York. From her bed she can see the Chrysler Building outside her window and we begin to learn why Lucy has ended up in hospital. But the why isn’t what’s really important. What is important is the visit she receives from her estranged mother. This wouldn’t ordinarily be an unusual event for most families but Lucy’s is different, as we quickly come to learn.

I am Lucy Barton is a novel about looking back. Not simply looking back on her time spent in hospital but back even further to her childhood, one of poverty and strained family relations. Unable to leave the hospital, and with her mother by her side refusing to leave or even sleep, Lucy is forced to confront the silences in her past. The irony being that narrator is now a writer and words are her currency. Yet faced with her mother’s sudden appearance Lucy struggles to find the words.Instead the two women gossip about the marriages of women they know, the underlying suggestion being that neither of their own is particularly successful. It’s in the talking about others lives that Lucy begins to truly reflect on her own. There’s her father’s alcoholism and the scars left behind from his experiences fighting the Nazis during World War Two. There’s her mother’s abuse and her failure to ever show real affection of tell her daughter that she loves her. There’s her relationship with a college professor and the connections she develops with a neighbour Jeremy and her highschool teacher.

One of the most illuminating parts of the novel for me was the relationship Lucy strikes up with the writer Sarah Payne. She meets her first in a department store and again in a creative writing class. Payne doesn’t recognise Lucy but her surname is apt because Sarah Payne is a woman who feels pain deeply as highlighted in the cat incident. She is one of the first people to see her a writer. The writing class allows her to feel for the first time, that she belongs and that her past, rather than something to run away from, is something she can embrace in her writing. She tells Lucy that “We only have one story.”

After reading the novel I came across a set of questions and topics for discussion on the author’s website (Elizabeth Strout online). Reading through the list, what seemed on first reading like a simple mother-daughter narrator became something far more complex. I went back and re-read the book with this list in mind. I’d urge you to do the same because it made me think again about what I’d just read. There were two in particular, the first being; “Lucy expresses great love for her doctor. How would you describe that love?”

All the relationships Lucy reflects upon are complicated ones including the one with her doctor. I have read some reviews that have questioned the mother-daughter relationship. But what Strout does well is to recognise that relationships in general are complex and the ones in this novel are no different. When I first read Lucy say she loved her doctor I had to do a double-take. Really? You’ve only known him for 5 minutes! But when I thought about their ‘relationship’ in the context of all the others in the novel, then this one begins to make sense. Growing up she was starved of both affection and recognition and the doctor gives her both in the only way he can.

If the story ha a weakness it’s when I consider question number 9, “What does living in New York City mean for Lucy? Do you think she feels at home in New York?” I felt as if the book was much stronger when it’s describing Lucy’s childhood hometown of Amgash, Illinois rather than New York. The city is being used as a point of comparison and where better than New York to use as a contrast. But I almost felt like any large city would have served just as well, the point being Lucy’s escape from somewhere that holds such painful memories.

The fact that it took me only two days to read shows that not only is it a quick read (if you’re looking for something that’s not going to take you months to read try this) and I say this as a slow reader but also an absorbing one. It was the emotional honesty of the book that kept me reading and why I gave it 4 starts.

4 stars

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