My Name is Lucy Barton. Elizabeth Strout.

Strout, Elizabeth. My Name is Lucy Barton. Random House, New York, 2016. F;5/17

Like Anything is Possible I have no notes and only a few highlights of this novel. But the highlights and my recollection convince me that this author has the skill to light up emotion (mine anyway) through her characters’ lives.

This one is about a woman who escapes from a nightmare chaotically poverty-stricken upbringing to be a successful author living in New York, and then gets sick with an ill-defined health problem which resolves, but only after she spends months in the hospital. Her eccentric mother who she has a difficult neglectfully abusive relationship with comes and stays with her for a few days, and this makes a difference.

Lucy Barton is probably pretty autobiographical, certainly Elizabeth Strout wouldn’t “be” any of the people left behind in horrible fictional small town Illinois, as we see them in Anything is Possible. But we know from the testimonials of dozens of authors including Jonathan Franzen in Farther Away that autobiographical fiction is complicated and authors are always making the best work their imagination can come up (writing from themselves as distinct from exactly about themselves that is) but usually not writing down the facts of their lives. Nobody but an obsessive English lit academic cares about Elizabeth Strout’s time in junior high school. It’s how her fiction connects us with and redefines our own world and with any luck everybody else’s that matters,

The information I have as I write this little review only lets me say something about the passages in this novel that seemed important to me:

I have always depended on the kindness of strangers… But after a while it sounds trite, like a bumper sticker. And that’s what makes me sad, that a beautiful and true line comes to be used so often that it takes on the superficial sound of a bumper sticker.

Cultural entropy. A wonderful thing happens in the world, someone lets us all know about it, and we scramble all over it like thoughtful insects and make it worse than worthless.

Immediately I went to the nurses station. Please don’t let her suffer, and they told me they would not let her suffer. I didn’t believe them… Please, I begged these nurses, and I saw in their eyes the deepest fatigue of people who cannot do any more about anything.

The plot of this story mostly takes place in a hospital, and believe me from professional experience it is one of the worst things about hospitals that terribly unhappy suffering people are trapped in a procedure-driven nightmare in which originally kindly professionals who chose their life’s work to help others are prevented from doing so. We’re getting better, but too slowly. For whatever reason Elizabeth Strout gets this.

A hotel room is a lonely place. Oh God it is a lonely place.

There’s not a whole lot of solace in the average hotel room. If you come into one feeling not-bad, having a couple of drinks and looking forward to something potentially positive you’re fine. But if you’re stuck there for the night when you’ve lost somebody you love, made a terrible mistake, or been done dirt in a way you can recover from, nobody and nothing is going to help you.

… I know that money is a big thing, in a marriage, in a life, money is power, I do know that. No matter what I say, or what anyone says, money is power.

Good for her. It’s another (beyond what I said in my critique of Anything is Possible) a good reason to read Elizabeth Strout that she does her best to tell the truth. Highly recommended. 9.2/8.5.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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