A woman in a hospital in New York turns from the window to find her estranged mother sitting by her bed. Over the next five days they talk, remembering people they both knew and reestablishing forgotten connections. Then as abruptly as she came, the mother leaves.
The book is narrated by the daughter, Lucy Barton, a writer trying to find her voice. This is a book that does not spill all its secrets: mother and daughter find it hard to express their love for each other but they do not need to—they know. Lucy has obviously had a difficult childhood: her family were very poor, and her father suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after coming back from the war. There is some trauma in Lucy’s own childhood but we never find out what it is, just that it exists.
Lucy has made her life in New York with a husband and two children. She doesn’t go back home and hardly speaks to her family. Until one day when she finds her mother sitting by her bed, bringing with her memories of the past.
Reading this is like listening to Lucy’s thoughts moving back and forth in time. Sarah Payne, a writer who taught her, tells her that we all have one story that we tell in different ways. And that is what this book is really about: our memories, both the ones we return to and those we keep firmly locked away, the stories we tell and how we tell them.
My Name is Lucy Barton is beautifully written, with a deep understanding of how people deal with emotional pain. Elizabeth Strout has a way of using language to capture moments, whether it is a feeling or a physical scene. Lucy remarks how once in a while, she hears a child cry, not from tiredness but “with the deepest of desperation”, as she did when she was a child. “I feel almost, then, that I can hear within me the sound of my own heart breaking, the way you can hear outside in the open air—when the conditions were exactly right—the corn growing in the fields of my youth.” I love the thought that a breaking heart or growing corn has a sound.
This book is a pleasure to read, both because of quality of the language and its insights into people. Strout doesn’t strike a false note. The story is moving without ever becoming sentimental; a clear-eyed look at how we deal—or don’t—with all the baggage we carry. The hurts of childhood run deep: “I know so well the pain we children clutch to our chests, how it lasts our whole lifetime, with longings so large you can’t even weep. We hold it tight, we do, with each seizure of the beating heart: This is mine, this is mine, this is mine.”
I’ll end with a description about night falling in the cornfields which, like the best photographs, encapsulates a mood: “the sun setting behind you, the sky in front becoming pink and soft, then slightly blue again as though it could not stop going on in its beauty, then the land closest to the setting sun would get dark, almost black against the orange line of horizon, but if you turn around, the land is still available to the eye with such softness, the few trees, the cover crops already turned, the sky lingering, lingering and then finally dark. As though the soul can be quiet for those moments.”