Elizabeth Strout’s “Olive Kitteridge” was an astonishing book, a sort of collection of short stories all tangentially connected to the protagonist, Olive Kitteridge, who is the most memorably unsympathetic character I may have ever read. With “My Name is Lucy Barton”, Strout has taken the total opposite approach. Centering around a prolonged hospitalization in which she receives a visit from her estranged mother, this title character quietly, delicately retraces her life while pulling at the heartstrings of the reader without cease. Lucy is overwhelmingly endearing and sympathetic. Her language and memories are carefully curated, her muted tones and keen observations woven together masterfully. In fact, I found myself so bought in to Lucy as narrator that I had to frequently shake myself out of the feeling that this was memoir and not fiction.
Lucy Barton’s life is often dark, devoid of much in the way of hope or love. Growing up in brutal austerity, a poverty not just of money but of affection, Lucy turns inward to books and writing, discovering that this is a realm where she has a voice.
“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.”
Despite a childhood of harsh treatment alternating with devastating neglect, Lucy seems such an innocent, open soul. Where her taste of the world could have made her closed off and jaded, instead the reader finds a woman still eager to see the best in people.
“It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people. It happens everywhere, and all the time. Whatever we call it, I think it’s the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down.”
Elizabeth Strout is known for developing characters who “lead lives of quiet desperation”. With “My Name is Lucy Barton”, she has done so again, creating a protagonist who is fragile and yet surprisingly robust. This work, in its brevity and intimacy, often feels like a diary and I got guilty pleasure from peering at Lucy’s innermost thoughts.