Sunday, July 23, 2023

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout -- Book Review


Book Description: "Lucy Barton is recovering slowly from what should have been a simple operation. Her mother, to whom she hasn't spoken for many years, comes to see her. Her unexpected visit forces Lucy to confront the tension and longing that have informed every aspect of her life: her impoverished childhood in Amgash, Illinois, her escape to New York and her desire to become a writer, her faltering marriage, her love for her two daughters.

Knitting this powerful narrative together is the brilliant storytelling voice of Lucy herself: keenly observant, deeply human, and truly unforgettable. In My Name Is Lucy Barton, one of America's finest writers shows how a simple hospital visit illuminates the most tender relationship of all-the one between mother and daughter."

I can't say that I liked this book, but I'm glad I read it. In fact, I find that every 12-18 months, I sort of put myself in that position--- to read something totally out of my genre and comfort zone. Maybe I do this to help me be more relatable to lifestyles very different from my own? What usually happens, though, is what happened this time. I find that the stuff in my life that I've stuffed is the stuff that causes me to relate all too well. This is the kind of story that inspires self reflection of the most difficult kind. It forces you to face the stuff you swear you've forgiven.

At first I saw this as a book of weird, stream of consciousness sort of remembrances. I feel like I should know these people? On one hand, it’s all stories of the past—-yet there is zero backstory. I came to learn that the story is the backstory. 

Regardless of the stated fact that the Mom in this story loves her daughter, she is emotionally stunted and extremely selfish and she refuses to heal from the obvious generational trauma that is going on there. The toxic thing about all this is that it makes a daughter want to bend over backwards to please her. I understand this completely. This desperation for the one who has rejected you to just prove they love you. Why is that? Have I carried the trauma of my experiences with my parents into my own healthy and happy relationships with my children? Do I try to make up for my hurt when I carry way too much mommy guilt when I'm not able to entertain or please them?

The author describes the sculpture of Ugolino and His Sons. The sons are gathered around their starving father saying, "You can eat us alive --- just please don't be sad, Daddy!" That’s what it’s like. To give up all that is precious in an effort to try to be number one to someone whose number one is themselves. I’m glad I stopped doing that. My relationships with my parents have survived into my mother's older age and my father's death --- but it is because of the boundaries I was wise to construct.

The story also made me think about my recent revelation that relationships between parents and children really are two-way streets. I had to have my own children grow into adults (and have a couple very strong-headed children) to realize this. One of the biggest revelations of my life was the understanding that my actions had hurt my father and it was too late to directly ask his forgiveness.

I understood the response of the emotionally abused Sarah Payne --- "I'm just a writer. That's all." A writer has a gift of communication that is envied by all who lack it. It's a huge thing to be a writer. When we realize that, we soar.

The most heartbreaking part of all of this to me was the narrator's self-reflection about her motherhood after her divorce: "I am the one who left their father, even though at the time I really thought I was just leaving him. But that was foolish thinking, because I left my girls as well, and I left their home." For 32 years, my mother has tried to convince herself, through convincing me, that she didn't leave us kids when she left Dad for the sleazebag. But she did and we both know it. I appreciated the narrator's words. Her acknowledgment is the acknowledgment I’ve yet to hear.

There were several mentions of the Chrysler Building, and it features on the front cover, so I knew there must be some symbolism to it. Having lived most of my life on the west coast and the last 10 years in the South, this meaning was not immediately obvious to me. I looked into it a little and it seems the building is a symbol of New York City's persistent optimism, even in the face of less than optimal circumstances. Perhaps it was used to draw a parallel to Lucy who also seems to be forcedly "happy" in situations a non-traumatized person would see as toxic.

Book fulfills the following challenges: Alphabet Soup Challenge 

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