In My Name Is Lucy Barton, the titular character ruminates about her less than pristine childhood in Amgash, Illinois. The catalyst for these memories is a prolonged stay at the hospital in the early 80s where Lucy, suffering from an unexplained fever, is visited by her estranged mother. Her mother stays by Lucy’s bed for a handful of days and in that time, while the nurses take Lucy’s blood, while the Doctor regularly checks up on her, Lucy and her mother discuss the people back at home in Illinois. At no point do either directly confront Lucy’s childhood and especially Lucy’s father who, suffering from post traumatic stress as a result of World War 2, is an intimidating, looming and enigmatic figure.
I know I’m not the first person to compare Strout’s novel with Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation. Both are short novels (really novellas) that deal with motherhood, with writing (the female protagonists are published authors) and with the eventual breakdown of a marriage (though in the case of Offill’s book this aspect is more front and centre). They are personal novels that eschew plot for emotional set-pieces, fragments and vignettes. And yet, while I loved Dept. of Speculation (go read it), My Name is Lucy Barton did very little for me. In fact, by the time I’d finished the book I realised that a better comparison was between Strout and Ben Lerner inasmuch as they both have a deep love for New York but more importantly the pretentious self-awareness that imbues the voice of the novel.
The artifice in My Name Is Lucy Barton is directly related to Lucy’s desire to be a writer. As happens with Ben Lerner’s 10:04 we discover that this book we’re reading is the book she’s working on. In particular, there this awful meta scene where Lucy, learning the ropes, goes to a writer’s workshop and shows the teacher fragments from the very book we’re reading. The teacher not only points out to Lucy the themes of the novel – how her mother often relates stories about failed marriages, reflecting her own troubled relationship with Lucy’s father – but also how Lucy should never feel the need to defend her work. It’s possible I’m missing something here, but this sort of self-reflexive commentary is not just on the nose but it’s no longer clever or innovative. It just drags you (or me) out of the narrative.
But even the scenes dealing with Lucy and her mother sitting by her bedside felt artificial. I know I meant to feel the emotional undercurrent expressed in the aimless, pointless stories they share about this and that woman from Amgash whose husband left her, or whose husband was having an affair, but it never clicked for me. So while I can appreciate some of the writing – there’s this beautiful passage about a statue in the Metropolitan Museum of Art of a man with his children near him, “and the man has such desperation on his face”, that perfectly encapsulates the fear and anxiety of parenthood – I never remotely engaged with Lucy or her troubled childhood and incomplete relationship with her mother.
It’s possible I’m not the audience for this novel. In fact if you go by the ecstatic reviews the book has received (including my mate James Bradley whose tastes I’m generally in line with), I’m clearly in a minority. And yet for me the clever clever fictiveness of the novel blinded me to Lucy’s emotional turmoil. If there wasn’t so much good stuff to enjoy I’d probably consider re-reading the book to see if maybe I wasn’t in the right state of mind to appreciate the novel. Maybe one day I will. But for the moment, unlike the rest of the planet, this was a miss for me.