Sunday, January 3, 2016

This is a Story About Love: My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Recently I was at a local college production of Thorton Wilder's play Our Town. I have seen it many times. It always moves me to tears. During the intermission the lady seated next to me leaned over and remarked, "This is the play where nothing happens."

What is a life? We are born. We grow up. We fall in love. Or don't fall in love. Or no one falls in love with us. We may or may not have children. We likely will work, for pay or as part of our obligation to the family. We die. Same old, same old, generation after generation. There is nothing new under the sun.

I once read in a biography of Jane Austen that she had led a life in which nothing happened. I bristled. Jane's brothers went to sea during war! Her father died and the family lost their financial security, their home. Her sister's love died. Jane suffered a debilitating disease that caused her death. She was a published, female author in her lifetime.

Nothing happened. Same old, same old.

Every life has a story, and that story is immensely important to the person living it. The wonder is that a novelist can create a fictional character with an ordinary life, and strip away the prejudices that tell us nothing happened, and reveal something universal and informative about 'the human condition,' that teaches us how to better live.

My Name is Lucy Barton is a small book of 131 pages. Lucy addresses the reader, relating the story of her hospitalization when her estranged mother spent five days with her. Her mother talked about the people in the rural town where Lucy grew up, the failed marriages, those who found that wealth does not bring success in love and life. She would not talk about Lucy's childhood memories.

Lucy tells us about her childhood, impoverished in material things and in love, when she was isolated and rejected by the 'superior' children. She tells of her dysfunctional family, her escape, and her ignorance and innocence of the greater world, of her first love, her marriage, and her children.

Lucy loves easily anyone who has been kind and accepting--her Sixth grade teacher who teaches about Black Hawk, who Lucy also loves, the writing instructor at the workshop, her doctor, her neighbor Jeremy, even her distant mother. "I loved him," I loved her," she says.

Lucy is also 'ruthless,' ignoring what people think of her, living her life and doing what she needs to do. Her writing teacher advises Lucy not to protect anyone when writing. As Jeremy had told her, she had to be ruthless. This ruthlessness involves leaving her first husband, not accepting his inherited Nazi money, and alienating her beloved daughters. She knew she would never write another book if she stayed.

No one can understand another person fully, Lucy tells us. We must not judge. Even when Lucy's own mother cannot tell her daughter, "I love you," even when her father publicly humiliates her brother. We do not know what demons drive and bind people.

An author does not usually give us direct clues to the meaning of their work; it is hidden away, little things here and there which the reader puts together. Lucy's writing teacher tells her exactly what she is writing about: This is a story about love, she says, people who love imperfectly, "because we all love imperfectly."

You have only one story, Lucy had been told. And Lucy tells us about her life, how people think she came from nothing, which she knows is not true, and how she just lived her life, blindly, fighting to do what she needs to do.

"Strout animates the ordinary with an astonishing force."- The New Yorker

Other books by the author include Olivia Kitteridge, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, which I read a number of years ago.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

My Name is Lucy Barton
Elizabeth Strout
Random House
Publication Date January 12, 2016
$26.00 hard cover

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