My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout: Loneliness and how to survive it

Cover imageSometimes you want to tell everyone you know just how good an author is, press their books into as many hands as possible. I’ve felt that way about Elizabeth Strout’s writing for some time. My proof copy’s jacket proclaims her  ‘the greatest American writer you’ve never heard of’. That may be less true than it was with the release of HBO’s fine adaptation of Olive Kitteridge a few years back. If you’ve come across that already, you’ll know that her writing can be dark and so it is with My Name is Lucy Barton. There’s much to think about in this slim novel in which the eponymous Lucy records her life, full of reflections, memories and ambiguities.

Lucy looks back on the nine weeks she spent in hospital over thirty years ago when a simple appendix removal resulted in an illness which resisted both diagnosis and cure. After four weeks of boredom, loneliness and isolation she wakes up one morning to find her mother sitting opposite her bed. Lucy has not seen her mother since she took her prospective husband home many years ago. Her mother stays for six days – bolting when it appears that Lucy may need surgery – filling their time together telling stories about people Lucy once knew all of whom seem to have suffered unhappiness in their marriages. Her father is left unmentioned by both of them until her mother leaves, and then only briefly. The next time Lucy sees her mother, nine years later, she will be close to death and Lucy will be a successful writer. Written in impressionistic episodes, Lucy’s narrative flits backwards and forwards through her life exploring her relationship with her mother and the effects of a childhood bereft of affection.

There’s a passage in the book in which an author tells Lucy that ‘her job as a writer of fiction was to report on the human condition, to tell us who we are and what we think and what we do’ which sums up Strout’s own writing beautifully for me. Lucy reports on the poverty and neglect – both emotional and physical – which singled her out as a child, exposing her to mockery in small-town Illinois. She’s a woman who never learnt how to be in the world, a child whose parents taught her nothing, carefully avoiding revealing their own pain in words while conveying it in their inability to express their love to their children. Despite her eventual success, Lucy feels untethered, quick to love those who are kind to her, constantly looking at others to see how she should behave. Strout unfolds Lucy’s life in vignettes from her past and future filled with reflections and uncertainties. She is, of course, an unreliable narrator – this is written years after the event – but then Lucy is certain of nothing about herself, or others, apart from her own loneliness. It’s beautifully expressed, written with great compassion as are all Strout’s novels: ‘Lonely was the first flavour I had tasted in my life, and it was always there’, wrings the heart as does Lucy’s efforts to comfort herself when locked in the grimy family truck as a punishment: ‘It’s okay, sweetie. A nice woman’s going to come soon. And you’re a very good girl, you’re such a good girl’. Not an easy read then, but a superlative one, which ends, I’m relieved to say, on a note of optimism. Listen up literary prize judges, this one’s a contender if ever I read one.

32 thoughts on “My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout: Loneliness and how to survive it”

        1. I liked it, although it’s far from her best, I’d say. I’ve read several others this year that I want to see on that list alongside this one.

          1. Looking forward to seeing your list. I reckon I’ll predict three accurately! It’s the most unpredictable prize list, in my opinion. I’ve been told this is because the criteria’s so broad. I am looking forward to seeing what this year’s judges have chosen though (and am already praying I’ve read ten of them already!).

          2. It’s the one prize that makes me sit up and take notice of these days. Good luck with the shadowing, when it comes!

  1. I have to confess I often hold you ‘accountable’ (nicer word than blame) for my sprouting leylandii-esque TBR piles… but to be fair your recommendations rarely – if ever – disappoint… BUT this one… WOW! Since your watch out for post I bought & read this one and can’t ‘wax-lyrical’ enough about it & Strout’s writing… her characterisation is so astute & acute! Now reading Olive Kitteridge & actively seeking her back catalogue.

    1. Thank you, Poppy! Very pleased to hear that we share the same taste, and even more delighted that you’re now a Strout fan. She’s hard to beat, I think.

  2. I whole-heartedly agree – Lucy Barton is brilliant. Such a simple premise for a story yet the characters cut deep. Loved it and totally prize-worthy.

  3. I’m really lookiing forward to this one, especially having just read and love Olive Kitteridge. I’d also love to read more of her backlist. More time, please!

    1. I’m so pleased that you enjoyed Olive Kitteridge, Naomi. Strout is such a fine writer, one of my favourites.

  4. I loved this one! Your review is spot on! I felt like reading this book reminded me what great literature really is and what a treat reading is. Such a great book!

    1. Thank you, Nadia. I think Strout shows such compassion in her writing but avoids any hint of sentimentality. Delighted to hear that it hit the spot for you, too.

  5. This was one of the first books I read this year and it completely knocked me sideways- to the extent that I was confident enough to say at the beginning of January that I would not read a better book this year. Everyone is getting it for their birthdays and if it does’t run away with every single prize going then there is no justice in the world. Mind you, at the end of every prize giving season I come away convinced that there is no justice in the world, so maybe I shouldn’t be so hopeful.

    1. Amen to that, Alex! And I have the same feelings about those prizes. Kate Atkinson should be staggering under the weight of them as far as I’m concerned.

  6. I’d never heard of Strout until a friend mentioned that she was thinking about choosing Olive Kitteridge for our book group (off the back of the recent TV adaptation). We didn’t read it in the end as something else came must have come up. Maybe we’ll end up reading this new one instead – it seems to be getting rave reviews across the board.

    1. Both are excellent, Jacqui, and would make very fine book club choices – lots to discuss. I hope you’ll get around to reading Strout at some point. She’s well worth your time.

  7. Well just looked up Elizabeth Strout books as I have never heard of her. Horrible jackets! I need to not get put off.

    1. I know! It was Cord, many years ago, who recommended Amy and Isabelle to me. It had a ghastly insipid pink and blue jacket but I trusted her judgement and she was right. I think you’d enjoy Olive Kitteridge if you’re looking for a place to start.

    1. I can recommend Amy and Isabelle, Christine. One of those previous novels ill-served by a dreadful cover in the UK, anyway.

  8. I have been reading so much about this book, but I love your take on loneliness. I particularly liked the passages that you have quoted. Thank you for this passionate review.

    And, I am so glad to have discovered your blog. 🙂

    1. I was delighted to read Alex declaring that. I know that she posted her review around the US pub date. Clearly, she just couldn’t wait! I hope you enjoy it as much as we both did.

  9. An insightful and thoughtful review. I read Olive Kitteridge a few years ago as well and loved it, then read My name is Lucy Barton a few weeks ago. Strout’s command of language is incredible, and the longer I thought about the story, the more layers I discovered. Subtle, but oh so deep. I was only disappointed that this one was so short.

    1. Thank you. I love her writing – quietly elegant but, as you say, penetratingly deep. I’ve been pleased at so many comments for this review which makes me think that Strout is reaching a wider audience than she once was, probably thanks to HBO’s excellent adaptation of Olive Kitteridge.

  10. Pingback: Paperbacks to Look Out for February 2017: Part Two | A life in books

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