My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

If I had expected Eileen to be like Hot Milk, it was I Am Lucy Barton that actually reminded me of the Deborah Levy novel, and how. The title character and narrator is positively in thrall to her mother, though in this case it’s not exactly a lifelong condition.

strout-elizabeth-lucy-bartonLucy Barton is in the middle of spending nine weeks in the hospital due to an appendectomy and its complications, and her husband has invited her mother to spend some time with her there—even though they haven’t seen each other in years. So Lucy, depressed and lonely and missing her family, is suddenly confronted with her mother again, and is thrilled to be talking to her. She’s thrilled to hear all of her mother’s stories from home, gossip about family and neighbors. She constantly tries to please her, unpredictably takes offense at innocuous statements, and ends up literally begging for her love. There’s no word for it but pathetic. And clingy, childish, needy…

Unlike Hot Milk, and like Eileen, I Am Lucy Barton is narrated by an older version of the main character. But the older Lucy Barton doesn’t poke the same holes in her young self. She’s a more serious-minded person than Eileen. And Lucy’s dysfunctional childhood of poverty and abuse leads her to an utterly conventional adulthood. Married with two young children at the time she’s in the hospital, she phones her daughters, desperately repeating that she loves them—in obvious contrast to what she hears from her own mother on this score. The same neediness drives both conversations.

Unlike Eileen‘s narration, which is never really explained, that in Lucy Barton is: Lucy Barton is, throughout the novel, herself a novelist, and she describes at various points in the book her relationship with author Sarah Payne. She first meets Payne in a clothing store, where the two chat as strange women about a jacket. She’s read Payne’s books, though, and she’ll go on to attend a panel discussion featuring Payne and later a workshop retreat held by her in the Southwest. To the retreat, Lucy brings several bits and pieces of what will eventually become the novel we are reading—which, Lucy explains, she began writing after being inspired by Payne to confront the subject of her past. This stuff all gets thicker toward the end—the mother’s hospital visit over, Lucy quickly summarizes the rest of her life up to the writing of the novel.

So we have Payne’s philosophy of narration, and we know what she thinks of Lucy’s story:

Never ever defend your work. This is a story about love, you know that. This is a story of a man who has been tortured every day of his life for things he did in the war. This is the story of a wife who stayed with him, because most wives did in that generation, and she comes to her daughter’s hospital room and talks compulsively about everyone’s marriage going bad, she doesn’t even know it, doesn’t even know that’s what she’s doing. This is a story about a mother who loves her daughter. Imperfectly. Because we all love imperfectly. But if you find yourself protecting anyone as you write his piece, remember this: You’re not doing it right.

Lucy seems to believe she has fulfilled this commandment, but I would have to disagree. She protects both of her parents, and she does it as part of the overall effort to protect herself. Her love prevents her from condemning her father as a child abuser, so she excuses this behavior by explaining it was really hard on him, feeling guilty about being a murderer for decades. Her love similarly prevents her from condemning her mother for standing by, and for failing to love her, so instead she cries out, “Pity us!” and chooses to continue the circle of suffering with her own daughters.

But Payne also told the class to “go to the page without judgment,” an instruction she and Lucy don’t seem to think is in contradiction. The reason not to judge is that “we never knew, and never would know, what it would be like to understand another person fully.” But Lucy the narrator goes directly from this point to more excuse-making for her father’s abuse:

We think, always we think, What is it about someone that makes us despise that preson, that makes us feel superior? I will say that that night—I remember this part more than what I just described—my father lay next to my brother in the dark and held him as though he was a baby, he rocked him on his lap and I could not tell one’s tears and murmurs from the other’s.

Both of their tears were caused by the father, though, not the son, who has just suffered yet another outrage at his parent’s hands. It’s Lucy’s choice not to judge him for that, and mine to judge her in turn.

This novel brought up a perennial bugbear of mine: ethical criticism. I don’t like criticizing I Am Lucy Barton for being a positive portrayal of a way-of-being-in-the-world I find distasteful—but the whole thing is I find it distasteful. I cannot find a line between the ethical and the aesthetic, these days.

It also brought up the Empathy Problem: sometimes, the more you learn about a character, the more alienated you become. You find out you actually don’t agree about right and wrong, how to act, or how to treat people.

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