Review: ‘My Name is Lucy Barton’ by Elizabeth Strout

As has become my routine now, my Saturday review is a book I’ve read for my MA course. My Name is Lucy Barton is a book I looked at a lot and held back from buying because I wondered whether I’d actually pick it up – so having an incentive to read it has been incredibly interesting for me. It turns out to be precisely my sort of book.

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The novella covers most of the life of a woman named Lucy Barton, but is primarily concerned with a very small section of it – the five days of a nine-week hospital stay when her mother visited. Their conversations bring up many trains of thought, and Lucy looks back on her life, making the sort of connections that we can only do in hindsight.

I loved the style of the narration, which is entirely non-linear – we learn about Lucy and her life as a whole, rather than from beginning to end. Essentially of course, this is how we exist, moment to moment – as a collection of all the things that have happened, until then. The voice is very particular and captivating – Lucy Barton’s address to the reader is like a direct stare, which once I picked the book up I didn’t want to look away from until I had finished.

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There are also some very interesting reflections in here. Primarily, I suppose the book is about family, and their effect on us as individuals – Lucy is always conscious of her family and her background, although she hardly sees them once she has left home and married. Her mother’s absence and presence in her life makes a difference to her, as much as her absence and presence seems important to her mother. I found it incredibly interesting, how the book seems to underscore a difference between the family you are made by and the family you make.

There is also the way this story handles major tragedies – at various times, the narrative is tied down in time by what has been happening in the world at that moment, such as the AIDs crisis or 9/11. I found it incredibly moving how the book never broadens its lens from the specific and personal effect of these events on their narrator – that the reach of them is communicated in the human response of Lucy Barton.

I was profoundly affected by this novella and would absolutely recommend it to anyone who perhaps, like me, has been glancing at it, and wondering whether to pick it up. It is a remarkable story, written incredibly well.

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