Lucy Barton looks back to the 1980s when, married with two small daughters, she had to spend nine weeks in a New York hospital owing to complications following an operation. Unexpectedly, the mother she has not seen for years flies in from rural Illinois to spend a few day with her. In the course of reminiscing about the past – generally banal gossip about neighbours without communicating in any depth – for instance, about why they hadn’t met for so long, Lucy recalls the poverty and isolation of a childhood from which she seized the opportunity of a college scholarship to escape, never to return.
Written in the first person, this is a novel of brief incidents in short, increasingly disjointed chapters, in which one is buoyed up by the awareness of being able to stop in the next page or two. The interest lies in piecing together the flotsam of details from the past. Was her father’s traumatised state, apparently the result of his wartime experiences, the root of the family’s problems? Lucy grew up not knowing how to dress or behave according to the norms of society, not understanding irony, puzzled by the cultural references that everyone else took for granted from socialising and watching television. There are hints of childhood neglect, possibly unintentional cruelty, even abuse, but Lucy comes to realise how for her parents and their three offspring, their “roots were twisted so tenaciously round one another’s hearts”.
In breaking free from her family home, unlike her mother and two siblings, is Lucy unconsciously showing the ruthlessness which a neighbour tells her all writers need to have? Yet even from a distance she is deeply affected by memories of her family and occasional communications with them, choosing to end the book with a nostalgic description of the beauty of the landscape at sunset around her parents’ small house in the autumn – a rare upbeat moment.
The style which Elizabeth Strout adopts to convey Lucy’s thoughts often seems childishly simple, with a tendency to jarring repetition. Yet it has the strength of addressing the reader directly and gives a sense of her authentic voice. At the same time, I found it hard to believe that Lucy becomes a successful writer, able to support herself without depending on her husband’s newly inherited wealth. She does not explain how she came to write and get published, nor how she finds the process of writing, although this is surely a fundamental aspect of her identity.
A clue to this may be the observation that her creative writing teacher tells her students that “there is only one story” which each author has to tell, presumably in various forms in in successive novels. Elizabeth Strout is probably expressing her own belief about writing here. So it seems likely that Lucy’s books draw on her own damaged experience, just as Elizabeth Strout’s theme is dysfunctional family relationships, how events and influences mark one for life and continually change the course of one’s existence, how family members interact, how having suffered pain at the hands of their parents, they inflict it on the children they profess to love, how perceptions of one another may alter over time.
Certainly, although briefer and more pared down than previous works like “The Burgess Boys” and “Oliver Kitteridge” which have gripped me more, this novel maintains that theme.