Lucy Barton, quietly-spoken heroine of this tender and sparsely-written novel, found herself in hospital for nine weeks in the 1980s, following complications from having her appendix out. Her daughters are five and six, she misses them desperately but she has been almost abandoned by her husband who has an aversion to hospitals following his father’s death in one. He remains a remote and distant figure, caring for his wife at long-range, arranging for her to have a private room (although this only isolates her further) and contacting Lucy’s long-estranged mother to come and visit. Getting on her first ever plane ride, her mother navigates her way from rural Illinois to downtown Manhattan to sit by Lucy’s hospital bed, refusing all offers of comfort and never appearing to eat or sleep. The five days they spend together, the conversations they have, the silences they share are what makes up this astounding book – a fantastic examination of the meaning of identity, memory and the nature of love itself.
Events are narrated by Lucy from a vantage point of several decades hence, giving the timeline a dream-like feel. Lucy reflects back to her dark childhood overclouded by poverty and other dark episodes left unspoken. Lucy is a writer and was told by a creative writing teacher that you ‘only have one story … you’ll tell your one story in many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You will have only one.’ Lucy was the first in her family to go to college and which she brings her future husband home to meet the family, her war veteran father is horrified because William is half-German. The marriage takes place and contact with her family shrivels to phone calls with the bare bones of family news, all until she found herself in the hospital and William called to ask her mother come to look after her.Lucy tries to separate her own memories of her past compared to what her mother is prepared to agree or admit to, then also to come to a better knowledge of her own self.
In the background is her vaguely described illness, which without the often hastily arranged scans, might be easily mistaken for a kind of Victorian female hysteria. Lucy is attached to her doctor, always pleased to see him and puts rather less confidence in her nurses – her hospital stay has sent her back to childhood once more. Lucy’s mother almost seems like a hallucination – it is odd that she has come all this way after so long, it is doubly odd that she never appears to sleep, drink or eat and then her presence at the end of the bed, reciting a litany of stories which all centre around the theme of failed marriages is oddest of all. She is an eerie presence, displaying an occasional clairvoyance about her daughter’s future – surely representing something about Lucy herself but even Lucy is not quite sure what. Once she is gone, I found myself not quite sure if she had ever been there at all.
Perhaps the over-arching theme of this novel is loneliness – Lucy has been hoping for an emotional reunion, or at least some kind of connection but this is not forthcoming. Her mother calls her by her childhood nickname ‘Wizzy’ but is unable to say the words ‘I love you.’ As a child, living with her family in the ice-cold garage they called home, Lucy convinced herself that a tree was her friend. Her classmates told her that her family smelt – Lucy remembers kindly a girl who did not speak to her but who looked pitying rather than contemptuous. As an adult, she tries to form connections with those around her, longs for a community even if it is the Aids-stricken homosexual one that she sees floundering around her. She refers to the woman who brings in her children to visit but ‘who has no children of her own’ regularly but never troubles to name her, even though she reveals to us that this woman is the cause of trouble later in her life. Lucy seems adrift in her life, ill at ease, uncertain – even as she relates anecdotes and memories, she admits to herself that it may be the product of wishful thinking. Lucy is a woman lonely even in a crowd.
There are hints at darker undercurrents here. Lucy remembers being locked in her father’s van with a snake – was this a punishment? She recalls adolescence as she developed breasts and her mother snidely told her that she was becoming like the neighbours’ cows. As an adult, Lucy’s brother still lives with their parents and has taken to reading obsessively Little House on the Prairie, where the parents are always kind and do the best for their children. Her sister Vicky is always angry. Lucy appears more hesitant of accusations, of stating outright that what went on was amiss but the reader is left unsettled by what Lucy is too afraid to say. Without ever saying it directly, Strout demonstrates how destructive familial relationships can fill us with self-loathing, as Lucy remarks in a casual way how she visited a plastic surgeon in middle age to avoid looking like her mother. With equal detachment, the surgeon remarks how this is very common.
Lucy is a writer, worrying whether her choices in life have been too ruthless or not ruthless enough. We hear her creative writing teacher tell her to come to the page ‘without judgment’, to protect no one with her words and indeed there is no sentimentality in the book at all. What Strout does portray though is an intense compassion – despite all that has happened, the many betrayals, many of which we can only peek at, the love between Lucy and her mother is primal, unshakeable. Whether her mother is in that chair in the corner or not, she will always be present in Lucy’s life and thoughts. Even the title seems to tacitly acknowledge the impossibility of shaking off one’s origins – Lucy may be a married mother of two in Manhattan with a different last name, but she will never stop being the young girl from Illinois who spent her formative years living in a garage. There is no blame here, no sense of defeat – Lucy will go back to her life unchanged and her life will carry on. The victory comes in her recognition and acceptance of her self. I felt a connection to Lucy which is rare to find with a fictional character – her voice may have wavered at times but I could always hear it with incredible clarity. Making Lucy’s acquaintance is a decision one is unlikely to regret.
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Published by Penguin UK on February 4th 2016
Genres: Fiction, Literary, General
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