- - Thursday, February 11, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON

By Elizabeth Strout

Random House, $26, 191 pages

“You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one … If there is a weakness in your story, address it head-on, take it in your teeth and address it, before the reader really knows.”

Lucy Barton receives this advice from writer/teacher Sarah Payne, who becomes a guiding light to Lucy, the main character and voice of Elizabeth Strout’s new, remarkable novel about unspoken love, emotional prisons, mother-daughter relationships and the ability to find the center of one’s being.

“My Name is Lucy Barton” is a book of deep insight, of delicate feelings, fine writing and elusive events. Miss Strout has more than one story to tell, but her stories return to many of the same motifs. Adolescent fear and bravery, the role of the outsider, the nature of friendship and the loneliness of the human soul were all part of “The Burgess Boys” and prize-winning “Olive Kitteridge,” just as they infuse this graceful, beautiful new book. It is not so much the plot, but how this particular story plays out in Lucy’s mind and heart that matters.

We are introduced to Lucy as she is spending nine weeks in a New York hospital recovering from a mysterious post-surgery infection. Her room looks out on the gleaming Chrysler Building, which serves as a beacon of hope for her recovery.

Then one day, she looks up and sees her mother, whom she has not seen since her marriage years ago, sitting at the foot of her hospital bed. Strangers to one another in many ways, the two women talk of the people Lucy knew at home in Amgash, Illinois. She finds great comfort in her mother’s presence and “soft rushed” voice.

Lucy grew up “in isolation” in a cornfield, an “outsider” ridiculed by other children on the school playground. There were no other houses around, just a single tree in the middle of the cornfield. “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” she says.

“O corn of my youth, you were my friend! — running and running between the rows, running as only a child, alone, in summer can run, running to the stark tree that stood in the midst of the cornfield.”

The family lived in a great-uncle’s garage “with only a trickle of cold water from a makeshift sink.” Supper “many nights was molasses on bread.” They did not have a television, newspapers or magazines or books in the house.

Without some form of instruction, Lucy wonders “how children become aware of what the world is, and how to act in it … How do you set a table? How do you know if you are chewing with your mouth open if no one has ever told you? How do you even know what you look like if the only mirror in the house is a tiny one high above the kitchen sink, or if you have never heard a living soul say that you are pretty, but rather, as your breasts develop, are told by your mother that you are starting to look like one of the cows in the Pedersons’ barn?”

After high school, Lucy left Amgash; she went to college, moved to New York, married the son of a German World War II prisoner of war, had two daughters whom she loved dearly, and became a successful writer. She survived the infection. Years passed. She left her marriage and later remarried. It took time for her to learn how to act in the world, but she did.

Despite her escape from poverty and her pleasure in New York existence, “there are times … when walking down a sunny sidewalk, or watching the top of a tree bend in the wind, or seeing a November sky close down over the East River, I am suddenly filled with the knowledge of darkness so deep that a sound might escape from my mouth, and I will step into the nearest clothing sore and talk with a stranger about the shape of sweaters newly arrived.” Which is how she first met Sarah Payne who encouraged her to write her story.

So she wrote her story — “things that had happened in my childhood home … things I’d found out in my marriage … things I could not say” — understanding that “I was doing what I have done most of my life, which is to cover for the mistakes of others when they don’t know they have embarrassed themselves. I did this, I think, because it could be me a great deal of the time.”

Lucy, in the end, is able to say, “This is me, and I will not go where I can’t bear to go — to Amgash, Illinois — and I will not stay in a marriage when I don’t want to, and I will grab myself and hurl onward through life, blind as a bat, but on I go!”

Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.

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