I was so excited when I read that Elizabeth Strout, author of Olive Kitteridge, had published a new novel. While Olive Kitteridge was a fairly dark story, I felt that she was so beautifully drawn that even with her many flaws, I could relate to and care about her. I was primed to love the new book, so much so that I pre-ordered it and waited impatiently for it to arrive on my Kindle.
Unlike Olive Kitteridge, which is written as linked short stories, Lucy Barton is a novel. Lucy is a writer, a novelist, who develops a complication following an appendectomy. She is consequently unable to leave the hospital for a number of weeks and, as the novel opens, worries about the life she is missing at home. She has a husband, two young daughters, a career. She is alone, worried about her family and the expense of the hospital stay and, most notably, miserably lonely. Three weeks into this unhappy limbo, without prior notification, Lucy’s mother appears at the hospital.
When Lucy suddenly finds her mother in a chair at the foot of her bed, her mother leans forward, squeezes Lucy’s toe and says, “Hi, Wizzle.”
Lucy tells us:
Her being there, using my pet name, which I had not heard in ages, make me feel warm and liquid-filled, as though all my tension had been a solid thing and now was not.
If this seems like it is about to develop into the story of a mother coming to her daughter’s bedside to care for her and provide succor, you may be disappointed. During her mother’s stay we learn a great deal about the hardships of Lucy’s childhood – both physical (the family lived in a garage) and emotional. We also learn that despite some desperately difficult times and events, Lucy’s love for her mother is one of the deepest and most abiding attachments of her life. Other than making the trip from Illinois to Manhattan, we don’t really get a sense of her mother’s affection for Lucy. They haven’t seen each other for years, nor is it clear that there has been any regular communication between the two during that time. They spend their time together discussing acquaintances, some past and current events, but never the dark history that sits like a specter between them.
The story that unfolds is told in the same unadorned narrative style that characterized Olive Kitteridge. As a reader, however, it didn’t work for me in the same way the previous book did. I understood Olive’s fierce defensiveness, her anger, her conflict. Lucy’s passivity, primarily her unwillingness to confront her mother about the very demons that haunt her thoughts, frustrated me. As much as I wanted to cheer for her ability to at least superficially overcome the hardships of her childhood, it ultimately seemed that she not only didn’t overcome them but refused to even try. If knowledge is power, Lucy chose to remain powerless over her past. The author attempts to end this story with an affirmation that Lucy has come to terms with her personal history. Personally, I couldn’t believe it.