My Name Is Lucy Barton
by Elizabeth Strout
Reviewed by John Francis Leonard
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n her short but stunning new novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout returns to one of her strengths, her beautifully drawn and fully realized female protagonists. It isn’t that she writes her male characters badly—the Pulitzer Prize-winner writes nothing badly—but more that her female ones become so dear to us by the end of her books. And, not only are the two main characters here female, they are a mother and daughter with a less-than-easy relationship, another theme explored by Strout in the past, especially in her moving piece Amy and Isobelle. The relationship’s resolution, although unusual, is the main premise of the book.
This novel takes place entirely in a hospital room where Lucy Barton, aspiring writer and mother of two, is recovering from a serious post-operative infection. Lucy has triumphed over a a difficult childhood of abject poverty and bad parenting. Abuse is inferred, but never spoken of clearly. She has built a successful life and family for herself regardless of this rough start. The mother with whom Lucy has a distant and strained relationship suddenly appears, called on by Lucy’s husband, and parks herself in a chair at the foot of Lucy’s bed for a week. They’ve barely spoken in years. Her mother is a seemingly cold and difficult woman, but Strout imbues her with a humanity that often redeems her.
The story is set during the early eighties in New York City’s West Village and takes place in a hospital, so Lucy is a frequent observer of the AIDS crisis. A difficult childhood and a tough mother have made Lucy a sensitive person and a compassionate observer of the gay community and its decimation. In fact, Strout has made AIDS and its impact on a community almost an ancillary character in this novel. The dying but brave men walking her neighborhood and isolated in the hospital affect Lucy deeply. As a young man in New York just a few years later than the when the novel is set, I observed and knew some of these same men. Strout writes of them so evocatively that I can’t help but think she does so from personal experience. AIDS is not the central theme of this piece, but it provides an important piece of the background and Lucy’s response to the crisis tells us much about its main character.
John Francis Leonard has enjoyed a lifelong love of books.