My Name Is Lucy Barton – Elizabeth Strout – Audible Book Review by Patrick V.
The often quoted lines of Philip Larkin “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do.” could almost act as prologue for Elizabeth Strout’s latest deceptively simple but many-layered novel, My Name is Lucy Barton. To reduce the book solely to this much clichéd quotation, however, is to do it an injustice. While it is true that Lucy ‘s life is greatly affected by her early experiences and the oppressive atmosphere in which she grew up, at its core this is a contemplative novel – a novel about trying to make sense of life, trying to see how all the pieces fit together and its aim is not to blame but to understand.
My Name is Lucy Barton, narrated by the protagonist from the vantage point of the future, starts with her recalling five nights in the mid-1980s when, while hospitalised with an undiagnosed illness, she receives an unexpected visit from her mother from whom she has been estranged for years. Immediately, the troubles of her childhood come flooding back: the poverty, shame and loneliness of the family’s existence in rural Illinois; her father’s abuse and his own terrible secrets; her mother’s inability, or unwillingness, to do anything about it.
Lucy, now a published writer, has found success and stability but there is much about her past life that she needs to come to terms with and she looks to her mother to help her make sense of things. Unable to talk openly about their common past, they circle around those things they can’t broach directly and through the picaresque ramblings about neighbours and happenings in their home town of Amgash, Illinois we are given a heartbreaking picture of Lucy’s childhood, steeped not just in financial hardship but in cultural and emotional deprivation: “Loneliness was the first flavour I had tasted in my life, and it was always there hidden in the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.” It is this loneliness, Lucy confides to the reader, that prompted her to become a writer: “Books made me feel less alone… I thought: I will write and people will not feel so alone!”
At her writing class Lucy is told by her teacher, Sarah Payne “You will have only one story. You will write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about your story. You will have only one” The same could be said for Elizabeth Strout who, in all of her novels, writes of the relationship between parent and child, often abrasive and tense, but always presented honestly and with a total lack of sentimentality. Her best known novel, Olive Kitteridge, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006, was made into a hugely successful tv series by HBO starring Frances McDormand in the title role. Both novels follow the same pattern in painting a broad canvas and trying to capture a whole life told through anecdotes and incidents.
Kimberly Farr, who reads this version, is well chosen. She captures Lucy’s vulnerability and fragility and leaves us to wonder at times how reliable a narrator we are listening to. This is a novel of meditation rather than action and Farr’s slow, clear enunciation suits this perfectly.
My Name Is Lucy Barton confirms Strout as a powerful storyteller immersed in the nuances of human relationships, weaving family tapestries with compassion, wisdom and insight. It is a book you will happily reread and Lucy’s flawed, enigmatic character will stay in the mind long after the book is finished.
The audiobook lasts 4h12 and is available from audible.co.uk