My Name is Lucy Barton is the second Elizabeth Strout novel I have read, all in the last six weeks. It’s different in content and narrative perspective from Olive Kitteridge but similar in tone. As always, some thoughts:
- Both of these texts move through narrative timelines in willfully chaotic ways. I hope that what Strout is doing is allowing her female narrator (and her omniscient one) control over story-telling linearity. In both cases (and this is clearly a tougher case to make in OK with its third-person narration) I felt as if the story was being told in a way that gradually lets us as readers know what the narrator really wanted us to know.
- Barton centers her narrative on the now-published author (in the world of the novel) named Lucy Barton. This is purportedly a memoir of sorts, from Barton’s perspective, so Strout is doing one of those cool Jedi mind tricks where she creates an author who is the narrator who is not really the narrator who may or may not be the author.
- Barton’s story is one of a two-parent family that is dirt poor and abusive (and scarred by the poverty and the abuse). The story zips around in time, as the narrator is in the hospital for a bit (we are not exactly sure why – the reason might be something from her childhood or it might not, it might be abuse by her husband or it might not). Her mother spends time with her, and they have talks that feel as if Barton is a very small child again.
- These talks give us a sense of just how much Barton struggles to get her own voice into the world. Creative writing seems to be something that she was driven to do, and by the time we are inserted into her life she has had some success, but she has had to make this place while maintaining her own self-image as a meek, humble, not-worth-much person.
- While this novels uses narrative devices that occasionally strike me as being too precious, in this context they felt entirely appropriate, even necessary. Strout is subtly portraying the difficulties posed in growing up poor, even with both parents around, and she identifies a crack (or two) and the scars left by poverty. The crack lies in the American dream of equal opportunity, and despite the fact that Barton sort of makes it (and in a much different way than say Sister Carrie), in the persons of her sister and brother we see how perilous that journey is…1 in 3 is not good.
- There is probably much more to say about this, but I will leave that for future posts…