Very very rarely you come across a book that is so close to perfection that writing about it yourself seems like an act of sacrilege. Having just finished Elizabeth Strout’s latest novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton, all I want to do is hide myself away and think about the enormity of her achievement in a book that runs to only two hundred pages and which my e-reader tells me can be read in just over an hour. But, if I do that then how can I spread the word about a work that I want everyone to read? So, almost reluctantly, I will try to give you some idea of the immense depth of human emotion that Strout is exploring in this small miracle of a novel, without trespassing too much on the work itself.
Lucy Barton is a writer and in this book, her book, she reflects on an incident many years earlier when she was unexpectedly hospitalised for nine weeks. During this time her mother, whom she has not seen for many years, visits her for five days. The relationship between them is taut with unexpressed, unrecognised emotions, most particularly with a love to which neither of them can give voice. Here, then is one of the subjects that Strout offers for our consideration, the relationship between mother and daughter. What, she asks, is the extent of a mother’s responsibilities towards her daughter? More pertinently, perhaps, to what extent is a daughter’s sense of identity shaped by her mother. For the other important question that the author raises in the book is that of where our sense of identity comes from. How do we develop a sense of self, a sense of our place in the world?
Strout explores many possible answers to this, answers which range from external signifiers:
the clothes I wore were me
through measuring ourselves against others:
I had never seen children going into Jeremy’s apartment. Only a man or two, or sometimes a woman. The apartment was clean and spare: A stalk of purple iris was in a glass vase against a white wall, and there was art on the walls that made me understand how far apart he and I were
to the ways in which others treat us.
And this is yet another area of concern for Strout: the way in which someone can be diminished in their own eyes by the disdain of another human being.
I was standing one day on the front stoop, and as he came out of the building I said, “Jeremy, sometimes when I stand here, I can’t believe I’m really in New York City. I stand here and think, Whoever would have guessed? Me! I’m living in the City of New York!”
And a look went across his face – so fast, so involuntary – that was a look of real distaste. I had not yet learned the depth of disgust city people feel for the truly provincial.
Strout develops this particular question further, not only considering the ways in which one person might feel superior to another but also the perhaps more interesting question of why such a feeling of superiority is so important to us.
I have said before. It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people. It happens all the time. Whatever we call it, I think it is the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down.
And as Lucy knows, the effects of such a put down can be out of all proportion to the words spoken: a tiny remark and the soul deflates.
Lucy has fought hard to establish and maintain her own identity. What becomes apparent as we read about her life is how difficult this can be and what terrible costs can be exacted as a result.
Like many readers, I first came across Elizabeth Strout’s work when Olive Kitteridge won the Pulitzer Prize. What struck me then about her writing and what is even more apparent in this latest work is her ability to say more that is true about character and emotion in half a dozen lines than most writers manage in a similar number of chapters. I loved Olive Kitteridge, as I have loved her other three novels, but for me My Name is Lucy Barton outstrips all of them. I will not read a better book this year.