The day I met my friend Ashley, she asked me “so what’s your story?” And really she wanted the story of how my boyfriend and I met so that she could squeal and tell me how she married her husband in only four months and ten days exactly after the ring. It is a love story that’s on going in her life. I liked her story because she was so proud of it. It was the story she started with. I think everyone has this story. The story you start with in a conversation with an almost stranger, but someone you trust, for some unknown reason, just a little bit more. These “stories you start with” have street appeal because they’re normally emotional (Hello, Humans of New York), but they also have a stir of secret to them as well. Sometimes you’ll add a flourish of detail on a certain part, and other times you tell it straight, just the way your truth tells it. There may be a new joke, the fifth time you’ve told it, or something you notice in that hazy memory that never appealed to the inner eye before.
“This must be the way most of us maneuver through the world, half knowing, half not, visited by memories that can’t possibly be true.”
I think Elizabeth Strout’s newest book My Name is Lucy Barton is just this kind of story. It’s the story she starts with in her middle ages. This might be true of the “stories you start with” also, that they become different in different stages of life. I have always started with a story of my grandmother, I wear it on my sleeve like an army medallion and I weave her into each short story, or journal poem that I write. I’ve always started with a clothesline in fiction, or a southern breeze, or a corn field. Something about these things brings me closer to myself. Now, I might start with the story of my mother. I’ve grown up, I’m not “too far” away from my Grandmother, my mother has just become the figure that starts my story. This is also true for Lucy Barton.
My Name is Lucy Barton is just what the title says. It is the story of a hospital visit by a woman named Lucy Barton that weaves in her childhood, her angry sister, and hay-sick brother, her mother who she hasn’t seen in years since she moved to the big city and who now sits quietly in the dark waiting for Lucy to get well. And her father, who is oddly silent as a character but looming like a cement statue in Lucy’s story. I think it’s also her coming into her own story, the story of her children and husband and the future that she will have after this hospital visit and with the people who cared for her with gracious nicknames like Toothache.
I think this novel is so powerful because of its tender heart. Usually, that’s meant to be said by some older southern woman in a full hat, “oh, bless her tender heart,” but I really mean it as a compliment here. There’s something about this novel that is so gentle that it doesn’t need to be loud. It doesn’t need to contain more action than a hospital cot. There is no need for Strout to yell where the emphasis should be. I love this novel because it proves that great writing can be subtle. We can be in one room with two half-broken characters full of longing and loneliness and it doesn’t kill us, and it doesn’t create a feeling of sadness, it’s just the story of a life. The story that Lucy starts with.
For this, I believe that My Name is Lucy Barton is a pocket watch novel. It has all these little turnings, working together to form one person who tells her own story with grace, subtle power, and conversationally. Lucy Barton is an old friend who you’ve just met. She’s a neighbor who you don’t pass often enough but get an afternoon with. She recounts her life not like a diary with all of that raw emotion, but through a telescope where its reflected differently on the other side.
I know Elizabeth Strout is good. I’ve read every book she’s written except The Burgess Boys (which is on the list), but where I was expecting another drawn out tale of a woman on exploration, this isn’t that. She’s gotten even better this round. This is a novel written like poetry. Strout has tasted each word and politely dabbed it onto the page. It can be painfully moving, but it is exact. There is something to say about using logic to bring emotion, and here is where Strout has mastered her art.