Lucy Barton is a writer who lives in New York, a place she could barely even dream of as a poor child in rural Illinois. Her new life cemented the distance that was always there between her and her family. But when what should have been a simple surgery turned serious and forced her to stay in the hospital for weeks, Lucy’s husband summoned her mother to stay with her—and she came.
In this novel by Elizabeth Strout, Lucy remembers the conversations she and her mother had in that hospital room, and she remembers the things she doesn’t want to talk about. Most of their talk centers on neighbors from Lucy’s childhood, where they are and what they are doing. That’s safe. Talking about themselves isn’t, as Lucy knows instinctively:
I wanted my mother to ask about my life. I wanted to tell her about the life I was living now. Stupidly—it was just stupidity—I blurted out, “Mom, I got two stories published.” She looked at me quizzically, as if I had said I had grown extra toes, then she looked out the window and said nothing. “Just dumb ones,” I said, “in tiny magazines.”
One of the things this novel does exceptionally well is capture how families can mark us irrevocably, even when they’re not part of our lives. Lucy has little to do with her family. There’s nothing that looks like intimacy between her and her parents and siblings. But she can’t escape her memories, some of them extremely traumatic. The memories tend to exist as fragments only, because Lucy can’t face much more, but those fragments are enough.
The book also raises the question of memory and how well it can be trusted. Lucy mulls over whether her mother’s memories are the same as her own, and the few times they creep toward getting personal reveal some differences. Lucy’s mother barely even remembers the truck that’s the center of Lucy’s trauma. And then there are the assumptions they make about each other. “You were a different kind of kid from Vicky. And from your brother too. You didn’t care as much what people thought,” Lucy’s mother says. But Lucy’s memory is different. She may have done what she wanted, but that didn’t mean other people’s opinions didn’t matter.
Strout almost obstinately refuses to really dig in to see what really happened in Lucy’s childhood or what her mother really thinks. And that’s OK. The fact that we only see her actions and words and have to surmise her meaning are what make this book work. It shows how we can never fully know another’s mind, especially if that mind is deliberately keeping itself secret.
For these reasons, the sometimes frustratingly fragmentary nature of this short book work in its favor. But there were some other aspects of the narration that I found frustrating in a less satisfying way. For instance, Lucy often refers to specific events and cultural touchstones with great specificity, leaving out everything but the name. The series of children’s books about the little girl on the prairie. The president whose wife consulted an astrologer. I couldn’t decide if she’s avoiding proper names to keep the book from seeming dated or to get at the vagueness of some memories, but either way, it was distracting, kind of like when TV shows have people drinking out of red-and-white soda cans that merely say, “Cola.” We all know what you mean, and pretending none of us know seems silly. (I understand the reason for this on TV, but I don’t get it in a book.)
The storyline involving Lucy’s relationship with her family is set against her story of becoming a writer, of learning to be ruthless. I think this book is meant to be her attempt at ruthlessness, and it sort of works in that respect. Her mother doesn’t come across well, and neither does Lucy herself, by the end. She shows how both of their actions have consequences that extend across generations, even when neither of them means to be hurtful. The last several chapters shows how Lucy leaves her own wounds. However, this section lacks some of the detail that made the early chapters, constructed around those hospital conversations, so powerful. They seemed rushed and maybe even a little perfunctory. Expanding them might have led too far in the other direction, toward too much explaining. More justifying, less ruthlessness. But I was still left wanting something different in the book’s resolution.