Australian politicians are fond of talking about “family values”, as if somehow being a family guarantees wholesome righteousness. Elizabeth Strout writes about what families are really like – bound together and shaped by each other, like it or not, but still individuals with private demons, dreams and secrets. What’s expected of you by your family and by society may not be what you’ll do if you listen to yourself. Is there any right and wrong in all this, or is there just human action and its consequences? Margaret Drabble, a writer I dislike, once said that she wrote about people “who are intelligent about their own lives”. She’s talking about a cerebral intelligence; Elizabeth Strout shows us the fitful emotional intelligence that we all have, in flashes. And when we respond to it, “anything is possible”, for good and ill.
Not a new scenario perhaps, but the grace of Strout’s style and her respect for her characters are all her own. That’s what I read her for.
He was suddenly as homesick as a child sent to stay with relatives: when the furniture seemed large and dark and strange, and the smell peculiar, each detail assaultive with a differentness that was almost unbearable. I want to go home, he thought. And the desire seemed to squeeze the breath from him, because it was not his home in Carlisle, Illinois, where he lived with Marilyn that he wanted to go home to, his grandchildren right down the street. And it was not his childhood home either, which was in Carlisle as well. Nor was it their first home as newly-weds outside of Madison. He did not know what home it was he longed for, but it seemed to him as he aged that his homesickness would increase, and because he could not tolerate the Marilyn he now lived with – a woman who nevertheless filled his estranged, expatriate heart with pity – he did not know what he would do… (95)
‘I want us out of here, Abel’, his wife said, ‘And if you –’
After many years of marriage things get said, scenes occur, and there is a cumulative effect as well. All this sped through Abel’s heart, that the tenderness between husband and wife had long been attenuating and that he might have to live the rest of his life without it. (235)
And Dottie thought that Shelly’s problems, her humiliations, were not large when you considered what was happening in the world, when you considered the people dying of starvation, getting blown up for no reason, being gassed by their own governments, you choose it – this was not the story of Shelly Small. And yet Dottie had felt for her small – yes, Small – moments of human sadness. And now Shelly could not return the decency of even looking her in the eye. (205)
The follow-up to My Name Is Lucy Barton takes us to the little town of Amgash where Lucy grew up, and to the people she wrote about in that first book: her own brother and sister, the Nicely sisters and their mother who left home for a lover, Charlie Macaulay the damaged Vietnam vet, Tom, the kind supervisor who used to let Lucy sleep in the classroom after school, her cousin Abel, so poor he used to eat from dumpsters, and his sister Dottie. Now we see them not with the slant that comes from Lucy’s perspective, but from within their own lives and minds. Lucy herself appears, but she’s a very different character from the New York success story the townsfolk talk about with awe or resentment. The chapters could be read as short stories, but the connections between people, the running themes and the rhythms of the little farming community hold it all together in a very satisfying way. A lovely piece of work.