Intimate. Quiet. Deep. These are the words that spring to mind to describe Elizabeth Strout’s newest novel, “My Name Is Lucy Barton.” Her narrator, Lucy, a writer with a husband and two young daughters at home, speaks to us from a hospital bed in New York City where she has spent many weeks one spring after an appendectomy brought on a raging infection. Aside from the drop-ins by nurses and technicians, Lucy has been alone for fear of contagion but also because of her husband’s dread of hospitals. Yet one day she awakens to find her mother, from whom she’s been estranged for many years, at her bedside.
My focus on the setting of a hospital and the circumstances of the story is important, because as Elizabeth Strout tells interviewers, it was a critical choice for her. “A crucible” she calls it, a place to withstand the heat of the emotional fires that lie below the present-day lives of the two. Strout plants another symbol in the story, the building Lucy stares at for hours from her window. For Lucy it was “the constellation of the magnificent Chrysler Building right beyond us that allowed us to speak in ways we never had before.”
Lucy is happy to have her mother nearby and is comforted as she talks about families they knew and the unfortunate things that happened to them—a neighbor who fell in love with one of her children’s teachers causing her husband and children to never again speak to her; Aunt Harriet whose husband went out to get cigarettes and never came back. Lucy tells her mother about her older friend, Jeremy, from her apartment building in New York who made her less lonely. “Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there.”
Lucy revels in the care and kindness of her doctor who visits regularly while her mother is there, and he watches the two interact. When examining her as she prepares to leave the hospital, he tells her, “The scar is healing nicely,” and we readers understand. And years afterwards, the time she spent in the hospital with her mother becomes the subject of her writing.
There is no barrage of family secrets spilling out. Strout is too gifted to let that happen. Instead she gently plants things that suggest a depth to the darkness in Lucy’s impoverished childhood that she never fully reveals—a grown brother, “not slow” according to Lucy’s mother, who sleeps with pigs about to be slaughtered; a brown snake with young Lucy who’s been locked in the back of a truck.
It is the intimacy, the quietness and the depth of this affecting short work that makes it stay with me long after putting it down.