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My Name Is Lucy Barton

By Elizabeth Strout Random House, 2016 A sense of melancholy infuses this extraordinary book from one of America’s most original writers. It is told from the point of view of Lucy Barton as she looks back ( for most of the book) to a period in the nineteen eighties when she was hospitalized for nine weeks for a persistent infection after surgery. Her children were small and cared for by her husband, who rarely visits the hospital. Her mother, from whom she has been distant, visits, and their conversation reveals Lucy’s longing for love. This conversation, in which Lucy appears to bait her mother to reveal more of herself, to wrap Lucy in the maternal love she willingly gives her own daughters, occurs over only five days. Within it, and around it, as Lucy obsesses years later on her marriage, her parents’ marriage, her love for her own children, Elizabeth Strout muses on poverty. Physical poverty – the lack of enough money – leads to being cold and hungry. Physical poverty and its corollary, emotional poverty, lead to isolation, to being jeered at within the community, to a sense of being unworthy. Ripples of this sense of unworthiness fan out in the story, as Lucy considers the AIDS epidemic, raging at the time of her hospitalization, as the legacy of Nazi atrocities echo in the story, and even in the sense of vulnerability that Lucy feels as her short stories are published. For the artist exposes his or her innermost self for the world to see and judge even as the work itself is a construct – a not-real thing, a work of the imagination that a world valuing material things may laugh at and consider unworthy of the effort. Like Strout’s first best-seller, Olive Kitteridge, My Name Is Lucy Barton defies the structural norms of fiction. Olive Kitteridge was a series of stories about a woman of emotional economy. Barton’s story doesn’t so much as progress as reveal itself in flashbacks and musings by the protagonist. As it reveals so much about the human being’s primal need for parental love, social acceptance, and respect for creativity, one gradually feels an unconditional love for Lucy. This is marvelous achievement in a novel.

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