Pulitzer Prize-winner Elizabeth Strout is regarded as one of America’s finest writers. Her latest novel is a powerful study of an emotionally charged mother/daughter relationship.
Recovering from complications after having her appendix removed, 30–something Lucy Barton is visited by her near-estranged mother.
Lucy is confined to her Manhattan hospital bed for nine long weeks, but it’s this brief five-day stretch that provides the focal point around which the larger narrative of her life is tightly coiled. Jumping both forward and backward in time, we come to understand that Lucy lives a life defined by acute isolation and loneliness.
Until she’s eleven, she and her family lived in a garage in the rural Illinois town of Amgash. There was no central heating, no bathroom, just a “trickle of cold water from a makeshift sink,” and all of them—mother, father, brother, sister and Lucy—together in the one room, with no escape from their father.
His abuse of his children, which is the result of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder he’s suffering after serving in the Second World War, hangs like a heavy shadow over the text.
It’s hinted at in various absences and ellipses, both in the larger narrative of Lucy's life and the bedside conversations between mother and daughter, but it is never fully articulated or acknowledged.
“The result is an extraordinary achievement: clear and concise, but inordinately moving.”
A kind-hearted school janitor lets Lucy stay after classes, providing her with a warm room where she can lose herself in homework and novels before she has to return home, but otherwise she is “friendless and scorned.”
We see the lasting effects of this early experience as the novel progresses. “Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life,” she explains, “and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.”
Lucy Barton moves to New York, gets married and has her own children. She fulfills her lifelong ambition of becoming a writer, and a successful one at that; one who actually makes money. But despite all outward signs that suggest otherwise, she’s haunted by loneliness.
Raised with so little, with “only the inside of my head to call my own,” her outlook on life is different to that of nearly everyone around her. The only people with whom she feels any real affinity are two characters marked by their own fragility: the kind, fatherly doctor who sees her twice a day but only charges her for five visits, and a writer who encourages Lucy in her work.
“Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.”
In many ways the novel can be read as a companion piece to Strout’s earlier work, the Pulitzer prize-winning Olive Kitteridge. Olive is a cantankerous teacher in a small Maine town, stood somewhat apart from the larger community around her.
Here she hones in on Lucy’s inner experience, depicting first-hand what it’s like to live a life of not belonging. The result is an extraordinary achievement: clear and concise, but inordinately moving.
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