Bacon on the Bookshelf

Savory picks for the free range reader

First GREAT novel of 2016: My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout

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My Name is Lucy Barton is the book your friends will be reading this winter, this spring, and beyond.  I try not to be a bully about recommendations, but you should join them!  I was recently reminded of Muhammed Ali’s approach to the ring: “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee,” and this seems to me Elizabeth Strout’s genius in My Name is Lucy Barton.  Her story of a mother and daughter floats back and forth in time, from the daughter’s impoverished youth in rural Illinois to her subsequent life – marriage, career, motherhood – in New York City.  One of the great questions of literature is posed: can you ever escape your past?  And there is the sting.  

The book is in large measure a meditation on the strange, wonderful, terrible power of the bond between mother and child.

It explores a fundamental loneliness of being in the world that you might recognize from Strout’s Pulitzer-prize winning Olive Kitteridge; also the ways we find to make connections and assuage that loneliness.

It is hard to put my finger on the exact quality of the prose – and the sensibility – that sets this novel above other more forgettable books that cover somewhat similar emotional territory.

I will share one passage that I found particularly moving.  Lucy is reflecting on the terror she felt as a child after being locked in her family’s truck.  She only tells you a little bit about her time in the truck.  But she does describe what she feels now, in New York, when she sees a child crying:

In this city of New York, I see children crying from tiredness, which is real, and sometimes from just crabbiness, which is real.  But once in a while I see a child crying with the deepest of desperation, and I think it is one of the truest sounds a child can make.  I feel almost, then, that I can hear within me the sound of my own heart breaking, the way you could hear outside in the open air – when the conditions were exactly right – the corn growing in the fields of my youth.  I have met many people, even from the Midwest, who tell me that you cannot hear the corn growing, and they are wrong.  You cannot hear my heart breaking, and I know that part is true, but to me, they are inseparable, the sound of growing corn and the sound of my heart breaking.  I have left the subway car I was riding in so I did not have to hear a child crying that way.

Claire Messud, in her front page New York Times Book Review piece, writes that “[t]here is not a scintilla of sentimentality in this exquisite novel.  Instead, in its careful words and vibrating si­lences, “My Name Is Lucy Barton” offers us a rare wealth of emotion, from darkest suffering to – “I was so happy. Oh, I was happy” – simple joy.”

Ann Patchett, in her blog piece at Musing, says that “My Name Is Lucy Barton is now my all-time favorite Strout.  It’s short … and exceedingly direct.  The narrative voice will reach out and grab you… It is a splendid novel, a masterpiece in miniature.”

Sam Sacks, in his Wall Street Journal Weekend Edition review, has compared Strout’s style to Hemingway’s:  “His influence is present here in her combination of candor and indirection and in the economy and simplicity of the language that conveys a sense of childlike vulnerability… This debt is worth noting because Hemingway is often characterized as the ultimate man’s writer (an impression, of course, that he himself encouraged).  ‘God, I love Hemingway,’ Ms. Strout has said.  ‘It’s something I don’t even talk about that much anymore because a lot of women don’t like Hemingway.  He’s out of fashion and what’s the point of having the conversation except that I love him?”

The best review I’ve seen is Maria Browning’s at Chapter16.org.  I think she captures the strangeness and beauty of this book in a way that I haven’t been able to convey.

If I were in town this Thursday, January 21st, I’d ask Elizabeth Strout about her affection for Hemingway!  She’s reading and speaking in Nashville as part of the Salon@615 series:

Thursday, January 21, 2016 – 6:15pm
Nashville Public Library
615 Church Street

Ticket Information:
This salon is a free, ticketed event.  A limited number of auditorium tickets will be available on-site 30 minutes before show time on the event date.  Advance auditorium tickets are limited and guarantee a seat in the auditorium.  Visit Salon@615.org to buy tickets or for more information. Arrive early for the on-site ticket line.  Once auditorium seats have been filled, guests will be accommodated in alternative viewing locations.   

salon_strout_2016About Elizabeth Strout:
Elizabeth Strout is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Olive Kitteridge, as well as The Burgess Boys, a New York Times bestseller; Abide with Me, a national bestseller; and Amy and Isabelle, which won the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction and the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize.  She has also been a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize in England.  Her short stories have been published in a number of magazines, including The New Yorker and O: The Oprah Magazine.  She lives in New York City.

About Salon@615:
Salon@615 presents bestselling authors free to the public through a unique partnership between the Nashville Public Library, Humanities Tennessee, BookPage, Parnassus Books and the Nashville Public Library Foundation.  Since its inception in early 2011, Salon@615 has become a regular and vital author reading series on Nashville’s cultural calendar.

 

 

19 Comments

  1. I had read an article about this book awhile back. So happy about your review. It is on my list!!! Thanks

  2. Jen, I can’t wait to read this. Just finished The Burgess Boys, which I loved. And our house is watching the Olive Kitteridge series, where Frances McDormand has absolutely captured the character. Strout is a master!

  3. Maybe I will be brave enough to read this – you know how I feel about fiction – but this does sound amazing

  4. That last was Patricia Eastwood – it’s early!

  5. Jennifer, thanks for the great review. I loved Elizabeth Strout’s other two books, and I will look forward to reading this one.

  6. Jennifer, I absolutely love your blog and the wonderous literature you bring to light. You write so beautifully and your words resonate in me. I can’t wait to get this book and join in the experience.

  7. Funny, I am just now “reading” (audio book) The Burgess Boys. Couldn’t get a hold of Olive Kitteridge nor this one, so I settled on Burgess Boys and must say I like it. Though I wish you hadn’t told me about Strout liking Hemingway. Now I’ve lost a little respect for her. I guess I’m one of “those women” who hate Hemingway. I truly believe all the adulation is misplaced. I haven’t yet come across anything of his I’ve liked, even though I’ve put more effort into him than in many other writers.

  8. Pingback: Could This Be the Best Elizabeth Strout Novel Yet? « musing

  9. I love Hemingway, as retro as it may be to do so. There – I said it! This book clawed at me in a love-hate kind of way. I suppose I expected more of a narrative, and it kept floating too high for me. Until I got a sense of the purpose – to capture a story with as little self and as much candor as possible. Letting the narrative emerge from that raw center. How many times did she remind us of what was not the story? You should read it, Patricia B Eastwood! It is worth the detour.

    • Leslie, what an amazing description of what’s going on in this novel. I think you capture it better in a paragraph than I did in a whole post! I had the hardest time writing about this book; it has an unusual power and it does have its frustrations, I’d agree. Thank you so much for your comment! Xo

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