There was a time, and it was many years ago now, when I had to stay in hospital for almost nine weeks.
When planning my summer holiday reading, I wanted a mix of books. I wanted short stories, I wanted some Australian authors, particularly Gen IV Australian Women Writers, I wanted a Japanese book, a classic, some non-fiction essays and I wanted to finish Elizabeth Strout’s Lucy Barton trilogy.
I first read My Name is Lucy Barton nearly five years ago. I read it on a plane trip to Melbourne to visit a much-loved aunt who was terminally ill. The weekend of the mad dash south, we had been warned that she may not last until Easter, which is when we had planned to visit. Even during trying times like these, I cannot conceive of being without a book. But I knew that I needed to pack something easy to pick and put down and something that wouldn’t challenge my vulnerable emotional state.
Lucy Barton was the perfect fit with it’s novella length format and brief chapters, but it is now forever caught up in my memories of that weekend. (Our aunt did make it to Easter after all, and all the way to July, but the last few months were difficult).
Anything is Possible, the follow up book, has been sitting in my TBR pile for a few years now. It never felt like the right time to revisit Lucy’s story, and therefore my memories of that time. However Oh, William entered my life a couple of months ago & I decided it was time to finally finish the trilogy.
To do so, required a reread of Lucy first.
I found myself being charmed all over again.
The same quotes struck me, but this time around I was appalled by the toxicity in the mother/daughter relationship. I obviously missed or glossed over just how awful their relationship was first time around. Perhaps it was because Lucy tried so hard in every encounter to be ‘normal’, kind and generous. She was desperate for a close, loving bond with her mother and sought for it in every conversation. She forgave everything to maintain the connection.
But the childish ‘mommy’ was the give away for me this time. Every time she said ‘mommy’, I cringed. Lucy spent her whole time trying to get her mother’s approval and her attention. She squashed her own desires to talk about her family, knowing that her mother would close up if she tried. The solution was to ask her mother to tell stories about the people in their town. It was like Lucy was stuck in her teenage role, constantly appeasing and trying to second guess her mother’s mood.
There were so many things they couldn’t talk about. From Lucy’s family, to her father’s time in the war, their poverty, her mother’s childhood and pretty much any memory of her childhood.
One of the hangovers from her childhood, is Lucy’s dread, even fear of being cold. The garage they lived in was always cold, the truck she often slept in was even colder, which is why Lucy took to staying behind after school in one of the warm classrooms to do homework and read. But, of course, the real coldness that Lucy was trying to alleviate, was the deep, abiding chill that came from her mother.
There was no physical affection and no loving words.
It was completely and utterly beyond her mother’s ability to do so. Lucy had to look for love in actions, like the fact that her mother came to New York for the first time in her life, to sit by Lucy’s bedside during her extended hospital stay. As an adult, Lucy also came to wonder about her mother’s own childhood experiences, which resulted in the very unusual habit she had of only ever sleeping in cat-naps.
When Lucy showed her story to her writing teacher, Sarah Payne, Sarah’s response was instant, and supportive.
People will go after you for combining poverty and abuse….Never ever defend your work. This is a story about love, you know that. This is a story of a man who has been tortured every day of his life for things he did in the war. This is the story of a wife who stayed with him, because most wives did in that generation, and she comes to her daughter’s hospital room and talks compulsively about everyone’s marriage going bad, she doesn’t even know it, doesn’t even know that’s what she’s doing. This is a story about a mother who loves her daughter. Imperfectly. Because we all love imperfectly.
Sarah also told her that ‘you will have one story. You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one.’ Which got me thinking about Elizabeth Strout.
All her books that I’ve read so far feature difficult mother or sibling relationships. This must be Strout’s ‘one story’. In my early and very brief review of The Burgess Boys, I wrote about how much I appreciated “Strout’s ability to see the good side of people and situations. She didn’t ignore or gloss over the bad stuff, she simply chose to see everything and everyone with kindness and goodwill. It was a heartening experience.” This was a characteristic given to Lucy as well.
I guess that’s why I enjoy Strout’s books so much. Her characters are often perverse or difficult, but their stories are told with such tenderness. Strout never judges her characters, another trait she shares with Lucy,
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.
We see this compassion play out in multiple ways. From the WWII stories some of her characters have about Germany and the Holocaust, to the AIDS epidemic in NY in the early 80’s. The effects of colonialism on Native Americans and the shock of 9/11. Strout subtly draws our attention to all the ways, the many, many ways, we have judged and put down others throughout our most recent history.
No matter how much compassion or kindness Lucy applies to her memories though, her life is constantly haunted by her childhood experiences.
I kept thinking how the five of us had had a really unhealthy family, but I saw then too how our roots were twisted so tenaciously around one another’s hearts…
…I know so well the pain we children clutch to our chests, how it lasts our whole lifetime, with longing so large you can’t even weep.
This is a story about love, but it’s a sad love story. An imperfect, messy love story.
It is not “good” or “bad” that interests me as a writer, but the murkiness of human experience and the consistent imperfections of our lives.Elizabeth Strout author website
To assist me in my reading of Anything is Possible, where Lucy returns to her hometown, I have made a list of the characters from Amgash, Illinois that Lucy and her mother talk about whilst Lucy is in hospital.
- Kathie Nicely (whose marriage broke up when she ran off with one of her daughter’s teachers…who turned out to be gay)
- The unnamed janitor (who let Lucy stay in the warm classrooms)
- The guidance counsellor (who helped Lucy get into college)
- Aunt Celia, Uncle Roy and cousin Harriet (who had ‘poor luck with her marriage‘ – he died suddenly)
- Harriet’s kids, Abel and Dottie Blaine (Dottie’s husband ran off with someone else)
- Mr Haley (social studies teacher who stood up for Lucy when her classmates teased her – ‘do not ever think you are better than someone, I will not tolerate that in my classroom, there is no one here who is better than someone else’)
- Nora & Elgin Appleby and daughter, Annie
- Marilyn Matthews who married Charlie Macauley (who went to Vietnam ‘he’s never been the same‘)
- Evelyn who works at Chatwin’s Cake Shoppe
- ‘Mississippi’ Mary who married the captain of the football team, the Mumford boy (‘turns out that for thirteen years he was having an affair with his secretary‘)
Lots of unhappy marriages!
- First read 24th -26th February 2017
- My first review
- Second read 25th – 27th December 2021
Title: My Name is Lucy Barton Author: Elizabeth Strout Imprint: Penguin Published: 11th October 2016 (originally published 12th January, 2016) Format: paperback Pages: 191
- This post was written in the area we now call the Blue Mountains within the Ngurra [country] of the Dharug and Gundungurra peoples.