My Name Is Lucy Barton is a novel and is the first book in what has become known as Elizabeth Strout’s Amgash tetralogy: a series of four books centered around a character named Lucy Barton, who grew up in Amgash, Illinois. The series is sometimes called the Lucy Barton books. The other books in the series are a linked story collection called Anything Is Possible and two additional novels: Oh, William and Lucy by the Sea. We’ll be publishing a review of each book in the series, starting with this one, and continuing weekly on the following three Tuesdays.
My Name is Lucy Barton was published on October 11, 2016, and was received with much critical acclaim. The Boston Globe wrote: “[A] sublimely merciful contemporary novel about love, yearning, and resilience.” I mention this because I am all in for love, yearning, and resilience, and this is what drew me to this first book—it has all three.
The novel is written in first person, with Lucy as the narrator, alternating between a nine-week period she spent in the hospital when her two daughters were young and memories of her childhood. There are themes of love, yearning, and resilience in this book, yes, but there are also strong themes of the unbreakable bond between mothers and daughters, childhood abuse, and the spectrum of poverty. These last two are sometimes so extreme that the hope of resilience is there, but barely, hardened by damage that can never be undone.
I’m going to mention the structure of each book because I’m a book nerd and am fascinated with the structure in this series of books. My Name Is Lucy Barton is structured in fifty-five unnumbered chapters, some of which are only a paragraph or two long, and one of which is only three powerful lines which become important to the series overall and especially to the last book, Lucy by the Sea.
Another thing I love about My Name Is Lucy Barton is that it is metafictive: the author of the novel, Elizabeth Strout, is a writer, writing from the point of view of Lucy Barton, who is also a writer. Lucy has a great deal to say about writing, much of it words she soaks in from author Sarah Payne, a writer she meets in a clothing store and later studies writing with. Not the least of Sarah’s observations about writing is this: “‘It’s not my job to make readers know what’s a narrative voice and not the private view of the author.’” I kept coming back to this as I considered how much of this story was based on Strout’s own experiences, the experiences of people she knew, or research she had done—she nails so much. But in the end, it occurred to me that it doesn’t matter. Whatever it may have been before, the story is fiction now, and its origins are really none of my business.
One of the things Strout nails is the interiority of an aspiring writer, a young person hoping to change the world with their stories, in this case, Lucy Barton:
“The books brought me things. This is my point. They made me feel less alone. This is my point. And I thought: I will write and people will not feel so alone! (But it was my secret. … I couldn’t take myself seriously. Except that I did. I took myself—secretly, secretly—very seriously. I knew I was a writer. I didn’t know how hard it would be. But no one knows that; and that does not matter.)”
My favorite passages from this book are about reading and about writing—Lucy is trying to accept that she is a writer, to learn to write what is true, to make the sacrifices necessary to write, and to escape the life she thought she was destined for into another, better life. “I think of something Sarah Payne had said at the writing class in Arizona. ‘You will have only one story, she had said. ‘You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one.’”
Lucy begins by writing about her mother—it would be downplaying it to say their relationship is complicated. Her mother visits her in the hospital, and it is a time of healing for them both, physically and emotionally. Lucy loves her mother, but can she ever forgive her? Sarah Payne tells Lucy this when she writes about it: “‘This is a story about a mother who loves her daughter. Imperfectly. Because we all love imperfectly. But if you find yourself protecting anyone as you write this piece, remember this: You’re not doing it right.’”
Lucy has an agency in this book that I admire—I am rooting for her all the way. She makes decisions—some of them are good decisions, some bad, but she makes decisions. She makes choices about how she will live her life, about what she will do and what she will not do to survive in this world. And she embarks on a writing career, the ups and downs of which seem to be a metaphor for the ups and downs of her life.
Lucy’s youngest daughter, Becka, reminds her of this: “‘Mom, when you write a novel you get to rewrite it, but when you live with someone for twenty years, that is the novel, and you can never write that novel with anyone again!”
I found My Name is Lucy Barton to be a fast, engaging read. Lucy charms me in this novel, and I want the world for her. She deserves it. The way Strout blends together the ingredients of Lucy’s life, and the way she mixes and stirs those things into the lessons Lucy learns about writing, were for me baked into a recipe resulting in a book any writer, or any person with a past and a dream, will be able to connect to.