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.
My Name Is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout
I sped through My Name Is Lucy Barton in one day. At less than 200 pages, it’s a fairly short read, and the narrator uses words sparingly in short, soft sentences. After having had a few hours to absorb it, I’m still not sure what to think about it. Like Lucy’s feelings about her own family, I feel conflicted in my own about this book.
Lucy Barton is a writer living in New York after escaping her dysfunctional, abusive household in tiny, rural Amgash, Illinois. When Lucy is hospitalized following an infection from a surgery, her estranged mother visits, spending days sleeping on a chair in her hospital room. Lucy slowly reveals her past in the narration, as well as her present, both before and after her hospitalization.
In some ways, I enjoyed this book. While I didn’t grow up in abuse and poverty as Lucy did, I did grow up in an immigrant household where I was constantly preached the importance of being frugal and not spending lavishly. I understood Lucy in some aspects, especially her guilt for her current financial standing and her inexplicable loyalty to roots that she is also somewhat ashamed of. I also felt that the book was bold about tackling the issues of abuse and poverty, and telling a story that I felt was true and realistic.
However, I found it difficult to actually like Lucy. The narrative voice is soft, gentle, and meandering, telling Lucy’s life in a series of vignettes. To be honest, I found Lucy irritating. The story immediately jumps into having me sympathize with Lucy without making me like her first, and despite Lucy’s status as someone I would normally admire (a young woman raising herself from her meagre means), I didn’t feel anything for her. Throughout the novel, Lucy only focuses on her story through short vignettes that are clearly meant to be thought-provoking, while displaying no humor or personality whatsoever. While I understand that the narrative is meant to focus on the lasting effects of abuse and poverty, I found the constant negativity tiresome. Lucy never appears to enjoy any experience, and even positive experiences are skewed to the bittersweet.
YES OR NO?: I’m on the fence about this one. I initially picked it up because it was on a “Best of 2016” list. While it’s a short read with an important message, I wouldn’t consider it an essential read. I plan on revisiting Elizabeth Strout’s work, though – maybe when I’ve made more progress on my ever-growing TBR list!