The relationship between mother and daughter, in all its thorniness and intricacy, is at the heart of Elizabeth Strout’s new novel.
In the 1980s, Lucy, an aspiring writer, ends up spending nine weeks in hospital when she develops complications following what was supposed to be a routine operation. During this time, she is visited by the mother she hasn’t seen for many years and this short visit – five days out of both their lives – becomes the episode around which the rest of the story hangs.
My Name Is Lucy Barton encompasses Lucy’s marriage and her path to becoming a writer, but it is in the intimacy of these five days, with Lucy’s mother taking catnaps in the chair beside her bed, that we come to understand the nature of the bond between them.
It is also a story of beginnings and the way people are shaped by their backgrounds. Lucy’s childhood was one of considerable poverty. She grew up on the fringes of a small town in Illinois and spent some years living in the garage of a great uncle. These experiences – half remembered, rarely discussed, always there – Lucy carries with her into marriage and life in New York. Much in this goes go unsaid, including the words “I love you”. Lucy has come to accept this.
Nor do Lucy and her mother discuss her father’s temper or the reason for her own deep terror of snakes. It is a story full of silences just as families are full of silences. But it is about the incredible richness of meaning that can be contained in one small phrase: “I’m glad you’re here.”
The Pulitzer-winning author of Olive Kitteridge is a writer of considerable emotional insight. Her style is simple but at times profound and, in its own delicate way, it is often deeply moving. There is little sentimentality in the way Strout captures the deep need that exists between Lucy and her mother as well as their ability to hurt one another.
It is a novel, too, about the connections that form between people over time – between Lucy and the doctor who is kind to her and the writing teacher who inspires her. This is also, in many ways, a novel about the ways in which a writer becomes a writer; it is a book of great tenderness and truth.
• My Name Is Lucy Barton is published by Viking (£8.99). To order a copy for £7.37 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99
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