Disappointing Book Club Pick: My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout


Recommendations from readers I trust are always welcome and usually I’m not disappointed, but Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton didn’t live up to the hype.  Undoubtedly, Strout is a gifted writer: each sentence deliberate, finely crafted, poignant and delivered with the accuracy of an emotional missile.  However, the plot of this novel was one agonizing wail of despondency.

It begins with Lucy, who has been hospitalized because of complications that are never really detailed, but sort of remain mysterious and vague. There’s a kindly doctor who comes and goes throughout the novel and Lucy seems so desperate for any kind of affection that she gushes over his rather ordinary attention.  She says he visited on weekends too, as if this is some incredible, deliberate show of caring, when in fact, many doctors probably do the same thing for any patient with complications. Lucy’s mother visits her and we are privy to an endless stream of hastily drawn reminiscences about people in Lucy’s past.  Then there are random descriptions of abuse that serve to punctuate the reveries without leading anywhere. When Lucy’s mother calls her “Wizzle” I thought there might be some warm bonding to follow, but once again, nothing other than Lucy’s heartbreaking need to make a connection with her estranged mother that never happens.

The pathos of this story is further accentuated by the visits from Lucy’s daughters who are unkempt and treated to a bath by Lucy.  There seems to be a vague connection there too and we are later told about the disconnect in the relationship between Lucy and her own daughters.  I so wanted to love this book because the writing is poignant and really quite beautiful, but there was just nothing positive to hang on to. No inspiration, amusement, or revelation.  It was one headstone after another in a cemetery of regrets. Even Lucy’s writing instructor, Sarah Payne, was burnt out from teaching and had stopped writing after instructing her students by telling them that everyone has just one story.  Perhaps, but tell it to the reader in a way that doesn’t devastate and scorch any hope. Readers are left to fill in the shadowy lines of this story and we are given nothing but greys and blacks. If only she had expanded the palette, we could have painted a great tale.

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