'My Name Is Lucy Barton', by Elizabeth Strout - Review

By Weinberger, Eric | The Spectator, February 13, 2016 | Go to article overview

'My Name Is Lucy Barton', by Elizabeth Strout - Review


Weinberger, Eric, The Spectator


For a child, the idea of 'knowing' your mother doesn't compute; she's merely there. As an adult, there may be the curiosity -- who is this person who gave me birth and brought me up? -- but also some kind of resignation: you'll simply never know. Better, even, not to know. So long as she's alive. Once she's dead, you will regret it everlastingly; but you also know it could not have been otherwise. It's a handy argument.

Five days in a Manhattan hospital, as a grown woman with children of your own -- now you are a mother, too -- with your mother sitting across from you, may thus be a gorgeous opportunity, something to savour when everything else about you is shaky. (The entire hospital stay, in a room with a night view of the Chrysler building, is nine weeks.) The principal satisfaction of Elizabeth Strout's novella My Name is Lucy Barton -- and perhaps it is only a literary satisfaction -- is that it provides something far more ambiguous: this particular mother, irritable and gossipy and withholding, will not be known.

It is the first time in years that mother and daughter Lucy have seen or even really spoken to each other. The situation is so strange, and unresolved, that the book can be about nothing but these two. Lucy's fate seems to be that of a person who cannot command another's lasting interest. Neither her husband nor two young daughters visits much, or has anything to say -- in nine weeks. Her father, who has stayed at home in Illinois, doesn't ring up or send messages to Lucy through his wife. Even her mother, in the flesh, won't say she loves Lucy, ask about her life, take any interest in her family or do much else but talk about unhappy couples and families from the old days whom Lucy hasn't remembered in years. …

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