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 encourage 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 mother with whom she has a difficult sort of neglect or fully abusive relationship comes and stays with her for a while, 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 in 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 writing about themselves but seldom writing about the facts of their lives. Nobody but a minor English lit academic cares about Elizabeth Strout’s experiences in junior high school. We are captivated or not by how universally her fiction connects us with our own, and everybody else’s, important experiences.
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 know about it, and we take it 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 drink or two and looking forward to something potentially positive you’re fine. But if you’re stuck there for the night when you’ve made a terrible mistake, lost somebody you love, or experienced a stroke of extremely bad luck, nobody and nothing is going to help you.
… I know that money is a big thing, in a marriage and in life, but 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) good reason to read Elizabeth Strout: she does her best to tell the truth. Highly recommended. 9.2/8.5.