Reviewed by Megan K. Shea, Assistant Manager of The Mustard Seed Bookstore
“It is not ‘good’ or ‘bad’ that interests me as a writer, but the murkiness of human experience,” states Elizabeth Strout on her professional website. My Name Is Lucy Barton, Strout’s fifth novel, delves into this idea of the shadowy, gray space of human life. Strout, Maine-born and Bates College alumnus, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2009 with Olive Kitteridge.
Unlike Kitteridge’s longer vignette style, Lucy Barton reads like a slim novella using a first-person narrator. Also unlike Strout’s prize-winning novel, Lucy Barton’s title character is not as fully developed as Olive Kitteridge, though she is definitely more likable. Using narration that hops back and forth, Strout shuffles readers between rural Illinois in the 1970s, to the rise of New York City’s 1980s, to the present, where our title character shares her memoir with readers. The main plot arc places Lucy in a Manhattan hospital recovering from a near-fatal illness. She recalls the week of her mother’s visit to the hospital, the two women not having seen each other in years because of family tension and emotional (and physical) distance. Strout, fully harnessing the power of words, uses gentle and lyrical prose to cultivate pervasive loneliness in the novel.
Overall Lucy Barton is a melancholic rags-to-riches story highlighting the complicated nature of family ties. However, I found myself more interested in the what was happening between the lines and underneath the main narrative, than in what Lucy chooses to tell readers about her life. Were this novel a few hundred pages longer, giving breathing room for subplots and minor characters, I imagine being more satisfied. But if only taken as a treatise on the human condition’s murkiness, Strout succeeds.