Monday, April 18, 2016
Book report--Elizabeth Strout's My Name is Lucy Barton
Disappointing, I thought, and I'll tell you why.
I loved Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout's bundle of stories about an indefatigable woman whose pushy zany-ness was both a marvel and a blessing. Olive Kitteridge was a character you didn't need to like in order to love.
Apparently, I was not the only reader in North America who thought so. Olive Kitteridge won the Pulitzer in 2009. That's affirmation.
My Name is Lucy Barton, Strout's most recent novel (2016), features a character I could neither love nor like, and the reason is this haunting sense that she's not telling the whole story. Look, in literature as in life it's somewhat rare to get the whole story from any aggrieved story-teller. Someone tells us an incredibly sad or disappointing story about him or herself, and most of us, no matter how sympathetic, can't help but wonder whether there's not more deliberately left unsaid, even another side. We can cry with the hurt and the lonely and still wonder how the bad guys might spin the same stories.
Lucy Barton scares me because I can't help thinking she's being deceitful, and in the most dreadful way: she may well be lying to herself about herself. What that means, of course, is that I don't trust her. In this novel, I don't trust the storyteller.
Now the unreliable narrator has become a much beloved character these days. Writers create all kinds of wondrous possibilities by using narrators whose rendition of things seems scanty. We know the role because we're that way ourselves. None of us can be trusted to tell a story with divine objectivity because we're not divine. We all spin, especially when it comes to intimacy. None of our stories can ever be trusted totally.
But when the holes gape too much, distrust makes us wary; and I spent too much time being really wary of Lucy Barton's spin on those closest to her. Halfway through already, my BS meter started buzzing and not always softly; and when it did, I found myself half a continent away from Lucy's heart. That kind of distance is dangerous in a novel that's so deeply dependent on the voice of the teller.
When it's all said and done, Lucy Barton wants us to believe that she loved her mother deeply. Deeply. I didn't believe it, and still don't. Elizabeth Strout gives us cause for Lucy's estrangement--abuse and poverty--but most of us know people who've suffered far worse and come out less scarred. There's more to the story, more than we're not hearing.
That Elizabeth Strout knows her way around the human character is amply proven by her own masterful stories, but Lucy Barton leaves too much unsaid. You can't help but be interested in the matters of the human heart Lucy tells us, but I, for once, came away leery.
One New Years Eve many, many years ago, we sat with a woman in the middle of a marriage that seemed to be unraveling. We knew her through church, which means Judgment was sitting there beside the three of us too: it was the estranged woman, my wife, me, and guilt--hers. When we accepted her invitation, we didn't know she needed to vent, but she did. So we spent New Years Eve, our first by the way, in the confessional.
I was a kid, we'd been married for six months, but I couldn't help thinking there was more to the story. We left shaking our heads.
Does that woman deserve a story? Certainly. She's as human any of us. In a novel, should we have to trust her? Not really--library shelves are full of unreliable narrators.
But Elizabeth Strout can't expect that a character like Lucy Barton will be loved. Even liked. Speaking for myself, when Lucy stopped talking, I was shaking my head. I didn't believe her.
Am I glad I read the book? Yes. Would I recommend it? Sure. Was I moved? I was as skeptical as I was one bad New Years Eve a lifetime ago.