Monday, December 19, 2016

Book Review: My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

This is a hard book to summarize. It takes place entirely in retrospect, as the current time does appear to be now, but Lucy is telling us about a few days more than 30 years ago, when she was in the hospital for over a month (she had a minor operation but afterwards her fever wouldn't come down and they couldn't figure out why) and in the midst of that, her mother, who had never flown before and whom Lucy hadn't visited in many years, came to visit her in the hospital for five days. During that time they talk about mostly things that feel superficial and irrelevant, but they trigger memories in Lucy of things further in her past, of things in her future that may not have panned out the way she'd been expecting at that point in time, about predictions or assumptions that were later proven right or wrong, and about her relationship with her family generally and her mother in particular.

But mostly it's a quiet, short novel about a few days where not much happened, but that ended up being some of the most significant days in Lucy's life. We find out about her life as a daughter, a wife, a mother, a writer, a successful author, a divorcee, and so on. Through the lens of these few days, an entire world is opened up.

Because the book is so short, I could have read the whole thing easily in one night, but I put it down about halfway through because I wanted to absorb and think about some of the issues it brought up. Is it as revelatory and brilliant as Olive Kitteridge? No, but I suspect nothing ever will be—that's a high bar to hold her to every time. But it does hearken back to Olive. For me, it far exceeded The Burgess Boys even though not much happens here. I think that's an area where Ms. Strout excels: stories where not much happens. Usually I prefer a little more plot over character development, but when it's done as masterfully as by Ms. Strout, character development is wonderful and all you need. While this book is quiet, a little sad perhaps, and not at all exciting, the preciseness of her insight more than makes up for those potential flaws (but which are not at all flaws here), so for those who, like me, might have been disappointed by her last outing, know that she is back in high form.

I got an ARC of this book at Winter Institute free from the publisher.

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