My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is a story, told in the first person, about Lucy Barton remembrance of her life as she lies in a hospital bed recuperating from an illness. She obviously had a lonely, tough, even terrible, childhood with cold parents.
Like all Elizabeth Strout’s books, this novel takes a look at a past traumatic event plays out in people’s lives. In this novel, that event is touched on just a couple of times in passing and is actually a series of her father’s actions which she refers to as the “thing”. “… I saw in my father’s face great contortions, the kind that frequently preceded what as a child I had called – to myself – the Thing, meaning an incident of my father becoming very anxious and not in control of himself.” [p28]
This “Thing” is layered on top of a childhood living in a physically cold garage with emotionally cold parents. Lucy could never talk about her accomplishments. As her mom visits Lucy in the hospital Lucy yearns to make a connection with her. “But it turned out I wanted something else. I wanted my mother to ask about my life I wanted to tel her about the life I wasl iving now. Stupidly – it was just stupidity – I blurted out, ‘Mom, I got two stories published.’ She looked at me quickly and quizzically, as if I had said I had grown extra toes, then she looked out the window and said nothing. ‘Just dumb ones,’ I said, ‘in tiny magazines.’ She still said nothing.” [p 53]
Lucy struggles to push that life behind her as she finds herself. She divorces her husband and continues to write. Has she created that event in her children’s lives that will affect them? “But 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, his is mine, this is mine.” [p 188]
The hurts and pains we experience make us who we are and we cling to who we are regardless. Strout is an excellent writer who magnificently describes the external and internal worlds we inhabit. But in the end this is not one of my favorite novels of hers. It feels sparse and distant even though it is written in the first person. Perhaps that is what Strout intended, to have that coolness come through Lucy Barton’s words.
Elizabeth Strout is one of my favorite authors but this is not in my top list of her books.