I deserved this book. After all my whinging about how all books set in New York about writers were/are terrible, I read Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton and find myself retracting that outrageous and essentializing claim. Instead let’s agree that almost all books set in New York about writers are terrible – one exception is this one. Which is terrific. Really.
You’ll read the plot description and think it doesn’t sound terrific: woman recovering from a serious illness in hospital is visited by her mother. They chat. BUT IT IS TERRIFIC. In filling out her story, our first person narrator – the titular Lucy Barton – wanders a bit – described events are triggered by conversations with her mother, or her memories, or anxieties. We are offered (and it does feel like that: an offering) her childhood experience of growing up in poverty. And while we get glimpses of her marriage and her children, the narrative is more insular in its focus on how Lucy came to her adult sense of self, and how this self intersects with her parents and siblings, how this sense of self challenges who she should have become (if context and circumstance had prevailed) and when and how she comes to see herself as a writer, more particularly.
What makes it so great? I guess it’s the quality of the writing. Strout is a short story writer (see Olive Kitteridge) and does what any great short story writer does in finding the perfect small detail, or precise event, that manages to convey breadth and depth. Each scene in My Name is Lucy Barton is dense and rich like good cake (if there can be such a thing – I’m more of a pie person), but without an overly saccharine finish.
So yeah. Whatever. I was wrong to claim all books about a writer in New York are terrible. In this instance I’ll claim this one as great. Enjoy it!