My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

There is something so captivating about the voice of Lucy Barton, it made me wish to slow read this novel, as if it were a box of exquisite chocolates that require enormous self-discipline not to finish in one sitting.

Lucy Barton is in hospital after an operation and isn’t healing as she should, the very kind Doctor doesn’t understand why, so keeps her under observation.

That Lucy finds so many people whose path she crosses in adulthood so very kind or nice, is a telling detail.

Her husband, of whom her parents disapprove and have never met, arranges for her mother to visit Lucy, they haven’t seen each in years, but over five days she sits near her bed and they chat as if those years of silence hadn’t been.

It’s as if Lucy Barton relives a part of her childhood as an adult, but transplanted to a safe, uneventful place, a room in a hospital where they will not be interrupted, except by the occasional nurses.

Then my mother and I talked about the nurses; my mother named them right away: “Cookie,” for the skinny one who was crispy in her affect; “Toothache,” for the woebegone older one; “Serious Child,” for the Indian woman we both liked.

Lucy now lives in NY, her parents are from the rural town of Amgash, Illinois, life for them, including her siblings hasn’t changed much, Lucy however liked to stay after school near the warm radiator, doing her homework, reading books. She read her way through school and out of their town, almost by accident, into university and onward to marriage, children and writing stories.

Her turning point she wonders, came through a chance encounter with a woman in a dress shop, a writer, in whom she recognises something she can’t quite articulate. She attends one of her workshops and though intending to work on a novel, begins to write sketches of scenes of her mother visiting her in hospital, these are the pages she shares in her private meeting with the author, who gives her this advice:

Then she said, “Listen to me, and listen to me carefully. What you are writing, and what you want to write,” and she leaned forward again and tapped with her finger the piece I had given her, “this is very good and it will be published. Now listen. People will go after you for combining poverty and abuse. Such a stupid word, ‘abuse’, such a conventional and stupid word, but people will say there’s poverty without abuse, and you will never say anything. Never ever defend your work. This is a story about love, you know that. This is a story of a man who has been tortured every day of his life for things he did in the war. This is the story of a wife who stayed with him, because most wives did in that generation, and she comes to her daughter’s hospital room and talks compulsively about everyone’s marriage going bad, she doesn’t even know it, doesn’t even know that’s what she’s doing. This is a story about a mother that loves her daughter. Imperfectly. Because we all love imperfectly. But if you find yourself protecting anyone as you write this piece, remember this: You’re not doing it right.”

Through her writing, her listening to her neighbour Jeremy speak of the necessary ‘ruthlessness’ of the artist, of Sarah Payne’s writing advice to take any weakness in her story and address it head-on, Lucy Burton moves her life and her narrative on from its traumatic past, to a new empowered beginning.

But really, the ruthlessness, I think, comes in grabbing onto myself, in saying: This is me, and I will not go where I can’t bear to go – to Amgash, Illinois – and I will not stay in a marriage when I don’t want to, and I will grab myself and hurl onward through life, blind as a bat, but on I go! This is the ruthlessness, I think.

Absolutely loved it, hypnotic, slowly affirming a life that can grow and change and evolve out of traumatic experience, that past narratives don’t define future stories, that love is as hardy as a seed that grows out of rock, not impossible to bloom even in the harshest of circumstances.

My Name is Lucy Barton was long listed for both the Man Booker Prize and the Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2016. She has since written a follow-up book Anything is Possible set in that rural town of Amgash, Illinois, seventeen years after she left it.

The long list for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018, will be announced on Thursday 8th March, let’s wait and see if Elizabeth Strout’s newest book will make the cut.

Purchase a copy of My Name is Lucy Barton at Book Depository

28 thoughts on “My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

  1. I thought this was a magnificent book. I especially liked the parts you quoted about being an artist and a writer. Enjoyed this review, Claire. One of these days I’ll have to read the follow up short stories you mention. Elizabeth Strout is coming to my town soon, looking forward to hearing her speak.

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    • Isn’t it wonderful the way she incorporates meeting the writer and the exchanges they have and that ‘something’ they share. The stories are interesting, but I do miss the voice of Lucy Barton, we read around her in the follow up stories and she makes an appearance in one. How exciting that the author is coming to your town, that will be fabulous, I hope you’ll share that with us when it happens.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I loved this book too ….despite the many traumatic memories I actually found it very funny in parts. I ‘happened ‘ upon a copy of Anything is Possible yesterday and so couldn’t resist buying it.

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    • Yes, I think she handles the ‘trauma’ rather deftly, it’s interesting as I’ve just finished Aminatta Forna’s Happiness which features in part how people move on from trauma, it’s as if one book informed the other, and what Strout does with Lucy fits the perspective of Forna’s character, a psychiatrist specialising in PTSD. Love it when books do that.

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  3. There are some books – and some authors – that I’m so keen to experience and yet somehow it never happens. This book and this author fall into that category. Then I read another review, such as this one, and I’m reminded once again of what I’m missing. I really must make room for Lucy Barton!

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  4. Hi Claire, I so loved My name is Lucy Barton. I also read Anything is Possible, the sequel. We meet characters mentioned by Lucy and her mother, however a stand alone novel.
    I see daffodils are blooming in the South of France 🌺 We are still cold here in Virginia, with a Noreastern wind to rival the Mistral.

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    • I’m reading the stories now Sylvie, they’re excellent, she has such a vivid imagination and eye for little character details and flaws.
      My daffodils may have grown in a controlled environment before I got them, but they’re such a pick me up int he freezing temperatures and the otherwise barren vegetation out there. We had violent winds and snowy precipitation last week, and it kept everyone indoors, just the sheer violence of it, it wasn’t too cold but they’re not used to wind and rain at the same time here, it reminded me of NZ, we have that kind of weather often!


  5. It was one of the greatest books I’ve read in a while. Please follow it up with her next one, which is based in the town of Amgash and its inhabitants. She is a remarkably skilled writer who writes with such sparse elegance to devastating effect.

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    • Indeed I have Nella, I read Anything is Possible immediately afterwards and thoroughly enjoyed it too. I love how those characters refused to be mere peripheral accomplices to her first novel and demanded a book of their own. I do wonder if she’s left them behind for good, or whether one of them is pushy enough to insist on their own novel too, such is the strength for her ability draw characters, they seem to take on a life of their own. Sadly, one of my favourites was Abel…


  6. Like you, I read ‘Olive Kittredge’ a while back, and recently found myself on an Elizabeth Strout kick when a friend suggested I read “Amy and Isabelle” since I mother-daughter stories are near and dear to me. From there I went on to “My Name Is Lucy Barton,” followed by her latest, “Anything Is Possible.” As a writer, what I especially appreciated about her most recent book is the life she gives to characters from other work. Sometimes they just won’t let you forget about them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I love that those other peripheral characters and families for wouldn’t leave her alone, they wanted to be heard too, and I know that this can sometimes spawn a new novel, I wonder if any of those stories provoked that? I guess we’ll have to wait and see what her next novel is about. Did you enjoy Amy and Isabelle? I also read The Burgess Boys, but was a little disappointed by it, it felt a little like something was being held back, not being to fully immerse into the character, quite different to her other work. And from a writing perspective, the interactions in Lucy Barton with Sarah Payne were quite interesting I thought. I also love how some of the characters in Anything is Possible are reading Lucy’s memoir, which is the novel we’ve been reading.


  7. I absolutely adore Elizabeth Strout’s writing. I recently re-read My Name is Lucy Barton, followed swiftly by Anything is Possible – they make the perfect pair.

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  8. I read Lucy Barton last year and remember being moved by the quiet, strange love and the voice in their silence as this mother and daughter communicated their emotion if not all their thoughts. I haven’t read Anything Is Possible yet so I will probably reread Lucy when I get to it. Would be nice to see it on a book prize nomination list.

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  9. Pingback: Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout – Word by Word

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