Poetry for the soul

Book of the Week: Linda Burgess reviews the new novel by Elizabeth Strout

Linda Burgess urges you to read a new novel by a  modern master –  My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (Random House.)

Elizabeth Strout is my current literary crush – though I’m fairly sure that this time, it’s the real thing. She is fabulous. Damn her, she knows everything, and she puts just a tiny bit of what she knows in each novel.

She’s published five novels. Olive Kitteridge is the most famous; they based a television series on it. Abide With Me is my favourite, and My Name is Lucy Barton is her most recent. Because I just couldn’t wait –  I’m sorry, local booksellers to whom I am usually most loyal – I had to ask the humanoids at Amazon for it. It sits beside me now in its perfection. It’s a hardback, and although I usually prefer paperbacks this one’s got slightly roughcut pages and the cover is perfection. The book itself is a faded eggshell blue and the cover depicts a washed out blue and beige New York evening sky, and there’s the Chrysler Building. I am a quiet book, it says. And I reply, I could eat you up, I love you so.

Strout is probably in the Anne Tyler/Carol Shields team but she defies categorising. While Tyler gives you quirky people that you may or may not warm to if you knew them, at times Strout gives you prickly, difficult ones. The Lucy Barton of the title is troubled. There’s more than a hint of a damaged childhood and yes, this would normally have me moving straight on to another book.

Here’s the opening paragraph:

There was a time, and it was many years ago now, when I had to stay in hospital for   almost nine weeks. This was in New York City, and at night a view of the Chrysler Building, with its geometric brilliance of lights, was directly visible from my bed. During the day, the building’s beauty receded, and gradually it became simply one more large structure against a blue sky, and all the city’s buildings seemed remote, silent, far away. It was May, and then June, and I remember how I would stand and look out the window at the sidewalk below and watch the young women – my age – in their spring clothes, out on their lunch breaks; I could see their heads moving in conversation, their blouses rippling in the breeze. I thought of how when I got out of the hospital I would never again walk down the sidewalk without giving thanks for being one of those people, and for many years I did that – I would remember the view from the hospital window and be glad for the sidewalk I was walking on.

And there we have Lucy. She’s a private woman, not given to moaning, not given to dwelling too much on what we slowly nearly learn has been an abusive childhood. Most of all we know her family were dirt poor; worse even than trailer park poor. They were poor and a bit odd and Lucy was saved because she was brainy.

We spend the rest of the book getting to know her – but only inasmuch as she allows us to know her. You’d never find her on Facebook. We meet her mother, who comes for five days in the early part of the illness, then leaves. Fortunately we do not bear witness to revelations, we just observe a type of love in all its strangeness. A heart-wrenching depiction of a clumsy, yearning, mother/daughter relationship.

Love, in all its strangeness. Lucy’s love for her doctor who was kind to her – “a jowly-faced Jewish man who wore such a gentle sadness on his shoulders”, her love for her two little girls whom she barely sees over those weeks, her admiration for the writer (Strout herself may well be being evoked here) who teaches Lucy to write. Her love for her gay friend Jeremy. Going against creative writing theory, she tells, not shows. How very subtle and strong that technique can be.

I think it’s also about forgiveness. The mother who clearly couldn’t save Lucy from something terrible in her childhood, the distant, troubling father, and most interestingly, and almost written as an aside, Lucy’s inability to forgive her husband. Not for the affair that he (possibly) started during her time in hospital, but simply for being blond and German.

I can’t help it if I’ve made it sound dire. Believe me, it isn’t. Oh for goodness sake, just read it. Read her. If you want someone who understands relationships, love, aloneness, dread, humanity, and truth, and who has the lightest touch in the world of literature, someone who makes you think, Yes, oh yes, then lucky you if you’re yet to discover Elizabeth Strout.

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