Tag Archives: Olive Kitteridge

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.

Books to Look Out For in February 2016: Part 1

Not long back from my Viennese jaunt  – of which more later in the week – but here’s one I made earlier. February’s the perfect time to draw the curtains on the murky grey outdoors and get on with some serious reading. There’s no shortage of choice this year – so many tasty offerings that despite the fact that it’s the shortest month there’ll be two posts devoted to new books.

Cover imageTop of my list has to be Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton. I’m a long-term Strout fan. You may know her work already or perhaps saw HBO’s excellent adaptation of Olive Kitteridge. Sadly, several of her novels have been packaged in the UK in the kind of wishy-washy pastel covers that fail to do her fiction justice.  Much more suitably jacketed, this new novel examines the relationship between mothers and daughters – always fertile terrain – as Lucy’s mother unexpectedly visits her after many years of estrangement. Strout’s a mistress of the understatement, writing in that elegant pared back style that pushes my literary buttons.

New York settings are catnip for me and Kim Echlin’s Under the Visible Life sounds particularly attractive with its story of female friendship. Katherine struggles with motherhood and an unreliable partner while Mahsa flees her strict guardians in Karachi, only to be faced with an arranged marriage in Montreal. She escapes to New York where she and Katherine become friends, brought together by a shared passion for music. ‘Vividly rendered and sweeping in scope, Under the Visible Life is a stunning meditation on how hope can remain alive in the darkest of times, if we have someone with whom to share our burdens.’ according to the publishers. Very much like the look of this one.

Austin Duffy’s This Living and Immortal Thing is another New York-set novel, although this one’sCover image themes sound sadly universal. An Irish oncologist becomes increasingly disillusioned with city life as he searches for a breakthrough in his research while his marriage disappears down the tubes. Work is a comfort but life begins to look up when he meets a beautiful Russian translator. Perhaps not a particularly interesting synopsis but what caught my eye was the publisher’s descriptions of the writing: ‘Shot through with Duffy’s haunting, beautiful descriptions of the science underlying cancer, which starkly illustrate the paradox of an illness at whose heart is a persistent and deadly life force, This Living and Immortal Thing shows how the cruelty of the disease is a price we pay for the joy and complexity of being in the world.’

New York, again, for Heinz Helle’s debut Superabundance whose nameless narrator is separated from his girlfriend by the Atlantic. Although he loves and misses her he finds himself attracted to every woman he passes on the street. With his own brain in overdrive, constantly buzzing, he wonders at everyone else’s ability to cope with life so easily. I like the idea of this but it could very easily back fire. Well worth a look, though.

Cover imageI try not to succumb to those puffs you see from authors adorning book jackets but when it’s a writer whose work I love it’s difficult to resist. Certainly worked with Sara Leipciger’s The Mountain Can Wait which Nikolas Butler, author of the wonderful Shotgun Lovesongs. rated highly. That ended up being one of my books of 2015. The writer in question this time is Ron Rash who’s sung the praises of Travis Mulhauser’s debut, Sweetgirl. The eponymous girl is sixteen-year-old Percy. In search of her junkie mother, Percy finds herself struggling through blizzard conditions, caught up in an attempt to save a baby girl with the local crook and his henchmen in pursuit.  Given Rash’s endorsement I’m hoping for similarly taut, spare prose from Mulhauser.

That’s my last choice for this first selection of February titles, all American as you may have noticed. The next bunch will be much closer to home. As ever a click on a title will take you to a fuller synopsis, and if you’d like to catch up with January’s offerings the hardbacks are here and here, and the paperbacks are here and here.