Book review: New novel offers intimate voice
April 9, 2016
“My Name is Lucy Barton,” by Elizabeth Strout
And I thought: I will write and people will not feel so alone! (But it was my secret. Even when I met my husband I didn’t tell him right away. I couldn’t take myself seriously. Except that I did. I took myself — secretly, secretly — very seriously! I knew I was a writer. I didn’t know how hard it would be. But no one knows that; and that does not matter.)
— Elizabeth Strout
When a book is poorly or clumsily written, the reader sees through to the other side, to the writer adjusting her glasses or putting the nub of the pen in her mouth. A good writer, however, creates a world so real and a narrator so human the reader feels she has found true connection, a friend speaking intimately across the table.
This is what happens to the lucky ones who read "My Name Is Lucy Barton." Elizabeth Strout, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Olive Kitteridge," is a writer so skillful she is invisible, leaving only her narrator, Lucy, to speak to the reader in intimate conversation.
Lucy describes an episode in her life when she was in the hospital, recovering, and she is away from her husband and her daughters. Her mother comes to visit like an apparition at her bedside. Lucy, who left her childhood in rural Illinois for a life in Manhattan, has not seen her mother for many years, and she comes to face a past she left behind.
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Her mother's voice and smell and touch are so deeply a part of Lucy that we come to remember how they once lived in the same body — a fact that can only be true of your mother. Lucy has since searched for meaningful connection with the woman who created her, but struggles to find it.
Lucy's New York life is lonely, populated with only a few characters from her building. In a sea of people, she has never found the deep connections she seeks. But I envied it, anyway, from out here in Northwest Colorado, because Lucy finds a home there, even in her loneliness.
Then, Lucy becomes — of all things — a writer: She pursues her dream of writing mentioned in the quote at the beginning of this review, writing as a way of connecting with others. Her connection to the reader runs real and deep, as though she's reaching across the table to put her hand on yours.
I had to keep reminding myself that someone else wrote this, made Lucy up, invented her out of thin air.
If you're a reader who seeks connection, you will appreciate that this book was written, that Elizabeth Strout took the time to create a woman so human and real. Strout is the one, after all, who brings Lucy to life, who reaches out to her reader, and — through Lucy's voice — captures one small part of the human experience — small part that belongs to us all.
Jamie Burgess is a bookseller and barista at Off the Beaten Path. Read more of her reviews at suitcase-words.com.
This book is available at the Bud Werner Memorial Library and at Off the Beaten Path Bookstore; e-books can be found at steamboatbooks.com.
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