Elizabeth Strout, whose magnificent novel Olive Kitteridge won the Pulitzer Prize for literature a couple of years ago–and who seemed to appear out of nowhere–returns with another flawless novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton. Strout is known for her feisty characters, and, in Lucy Barton, she’s created another unique narrator, not so much feisty, as Olive Kitteridge was, as an innocent, whose character is determined by the appearance of just a few key people, and just as few key events. Strout’s greatest strength as a writer is her ability to interweave narrative and style. Her writing style is determinedly simple, in the way that Zen Buddhism, in a sense, is “simple”. Strout is able to cut through the detail of daily life into its essentials, so that the examples she uses in determining Lucy Barton’s history and character shine like the purest of emeralds.
Lucy Barton (like Strout, no doubt) comes from a tiny town in the farmlands of Illinois, one of three children of two truly poor parents. These five people live in the garage, one room, behind a house owned by an uncle: all live in this room, where there’s basically no heat, no privacy, but plenty of abuse (a word that Barton/Strout will reject throughout the novel). Lucy is regularly beaten, and/or locked in a pick-up truck all day while her parents are at work, because they don’t know what to do with her before she is of school age, and believe that she will be safe locked into the truck (her profound fears and memories of being locked in follow her, and once a large brown snake’s her only inadvertent company in that truck). Lucy makes her way out of this horror of a childhood by falling in love with school (where she stays after classes because there’s heat in the buildings , and some food). She and her brother and sister are routinely bullied because of their poverty, their clothes and the like, creating in the adult Lucy a very strong sense of justice, and a firm refusal ever to make fun of anyone. Lucy learns from one teacher (and from her own experience) that no one should ever ‘look down’ on anyone, and, when she’s introduced here and there over the years as ‘coming from nothing’, she objects that no one can come from nothing…….the child Lucy, of course, is terrified of her parents, and of their simmering anger.
Having made it to and through college, married with two children, Lucy finds herself hospitalized for nine weeks in New York, where she resides as an adult (and loves). She will meet a woman writer , by accident, while buying a blouse, and follow this woman’s books and seminars for decades: those kinds of experiences run through the book, where accidental and random encounters move her, teach her, educate and inform her, and are the cause of her interior world’s growth, and of her becoming a writer. Each of the approximately eight characters whom she meets (randomly) make an enormous impact on this woman who’s never seen television, and who states up front that she knows nothing of popular culture, never eaten in a restaurant, and the like. Because of this long hospital stay, her mother appears at her hospital bed for five straight days.Lucy has not seen her since she left for college, and the conversations between these women, mainly about women ‘back home’ whose marriages have fallen apart, thrill Lucy, because they are from a mother whose love she never had, and who is truly incapable of loving (which Lucy understands and forgives). Every anecdote, every word, is precious to Lucy, whom we watch grow through seemingly miniscule , even mundane, episodes of daily life. But Lucy wants us all to know that this is her story, no one but hers, as she lays claim to her own existence, and her own large heart, and to making literature out of the mundane. Strout is so outstanding in every word choice, every paragraph, every mundanity, so that the novel seems full of epiphanies (it is), replete with the possibilities of love, and of strength, and of redemption. Lucy Barton rejects the idea that a childhood of abuse must , by definition, make her a victim, so that Strout’s recreation of her wretched childhood and refusal of the victim role truly makes this novel radical in a contemporary American culture where everyone claims ‘trauma’ and everyone seems to aspire to victimhood status, where we’re supposed to admire the person in Rehab, rather than wonder how , say, they got addicted to drugs (or whatever) in the first place. Strout’s complete rejection of this culture of victimhood in spite of Lucy’s wretched childhood, and of her later understanding of her parents, combined with her ability to love, to sift, to claim love wherever she sees it (not physically), puts Strout in new and refreshing territory vis a vis American contemporary culture of identity politics and the psychology of self-aborption, narcissism, and trauma.
So Lucy Barton is a strong woman, who does write and publish (one wonders, again, about the similarities to Strout’s own story, but that may not ultimately matter. Elizabeth Strout, like Patti Smith, Mary Costello and Anita Brookner, cuts through detail, and finds the simple jewels which become life’s defining moments. Dialogue is short, descriptions pithy and to the point: it’s reductivist writing, not like Joan Didion’s or Ann Beattie’s , whose styles are more mannered. Stroug write with a clarity that boggles the mind, so that My Life is Lucy Barton reads almost as a series of psalms, whose inner beauties shine at us, the readers, and remind us that character itself is our own creation, as it is Strout’s here, and that, as Eric Fromm pointed out in his ground-breaking The Art of Loving, maturity may be defined as the time when, regardless of what’s happened to us in our childhoods, we take responsibility for our own lives, and move forward, and that looking back may indeed involve forgiveness, and that Lucy Barton’s life is, thus, exemplary and redemptive.
My Name is Lucy Barton is a gorgeous, moving, important novel, brief and perfectly, flawlessly written, striking a balance between Strout’s own perceived feistiness/strength and the power of love in daily living to transcend circumstances. Each of the people whom Barton meets adds exponentially to her understanding of life, which she will then recreate as literature: art’s power has rarely been as profound and tranformative as it is in My Name is Lucy Barton. It’s a perfect book, and I am awestruck by its power.