There are homespun figures of myth in all our lives, people we knew in childhood or heard our parents talking about: the fine young man who came home from the war a shell-shocked drunk, the proper woman who scandalised the neighbourhood by walking out on her family, the man who abandoned his new wife at the railway station on the way back from their honeymoon. They’re stories that make the child aware of the uncontrollableness of the world and the mysterious laws that seem to demand different things from men and women. It’s people like this Lucy Barton and her mother talk about as her mother sits by Lucy’s hospital bed. A prolonged and mysterious illness has stopped Lucy dead in the middle of her life as a young married woman with two small children. She is, she says, “in a really strange state”, lonely and disoriented, when her mother, whom she hasn’t seen for years, appears by her bedside. There’s no doubt of the affection between them, but it’s never openly expressed. Instead her mother talks, as she never did in Lucy’s dirt-poor childhood; she was always stressed and busy, and Lucy spent as much time at school as she could, at first just trying to keep warm, and then falling in love with books and the world of learning that has taken her so far from the tiny rural town of Amgash, Illinois, where the rest of her family still lives.
“What I am saying is…”, Lucy, now a much older woman, often says to the reader, thinking things through for herself as much as for us, or “Maybe she meant that, but I don’t know,” or “That is what I think. That is what I want to think.” It’s a reflecting, ruminating book about the way we take such a long time to grow into ourselves, if we ever do, about the “large longings” of childhood that last all our lives, and about ordinary tragedies and the pragmatic heroism of ordinary people. It’s about becoming a writer, too, though I found that aspect of it less interesting, and the sections dealing with Sarah, the author who inspires Lucy, are faintly disappointing.
I’d just finished reading My Name Is Lucy Barton when I came across this in Rachel Aviv’s article about the philosopher Martha Nussbaum in The New Yorker:
We become merciful, she wrote, when we behave as “a concerned reader of a novel”, understanding each person’s life as “a complex narrative of human effort in a world full of obstacles”.
She [Nussbaum] reaches for a “non-defining style of writing”, a way to describe emotional experiences without wringing the feeling from them.
You really couldn’t get a better description of what Strout achieves in Lucy Barton. She’s always had a very light touch for complicated emotions, but this short, spare work is the ideal form for the unshowy beauty of her writing and her observation.
And when I came home from school one day after we learned how the Indian women planted a field of corn and the white men came and plowed it, up, my mother was in front of our garage-home, which we had only recently moved out of, she may have been trying to fix something I don’t recall, but she was squatting by the front door, and I said to her, “Mommy, do you know what we did to the Indians?” I said this slowly and with awe.
My mother wiped at her hair with the back of her hand. “I don’t give a damn what we did to the Indians,” she said. (71)
We drove past acres of soybeans and corn; it was early June, and the soybeans were on one side, a sharp green, lighting the slighting sloping fields with their beauty, and on the other side was the corn, not yet as high as my knees, a bright green that would darken in the coming weeks, the leaves supple now, then becoming stronger….In my memory the sky was gray as we drove, and it appeared to rise – not clear, but rise … (30)
Update: since I wrote this, the book has appeared on the Man Booker longlist. There’s a good interview with Elizabeth Strout here: