“Things I Could Not Say”: Elizabeth Strout, My Name Is Lucy Barton

lucy-bartonLater, after my first book was published, I went to a doctor who is the most gracious woman I have ever met. I wrote down on a piece of paper what the student said about the person from New Hampshire named Janie Templeton. I wrote down things that had happened in my childhood home. I wrote down things I’d found out in my marriage. I wrote down things I could not say. She read them all and said, Thank you, Lucy. It will be okay.

I loved My Name Is Lucy Barton at first, and really liked it probably until about half way through — maybe even up to the point when Lucy gets feedback from novelist Sarah Payne at a writing workshop that turns out to be about My Name Is Lucy Barton:

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 this piece, remember this: You’re not doing it right.

I’m not against metafiction in principle. Some of my favorite books are metafictional — honest! But something about My Name Is Lucy Barton didn’t work for me: by the end, it felt awkwardly self-conscious, as if it were performing, rather than inhabiting, a certain fictional role, as if Strout wanted, rather than needed, to make certain moves to be clever, rather than to fulfill some idea about fiction, or about her fiction. The awkward appearance of a reading of the novel in the midst of its action didn’t create my unease, which had been building already, but it crystallized it: I was uneasy about the novel’s on-again, off-again relationship to its own story, which it sometimes tells with poignant detail and other times almost coyly conceals (“I thought of what I have — to myself — always called the Thing, the most horrifying part of my childhood”).

Payne understands the story Lucy is telling more clearly than Lucy herself, or at any rate she puts it more clearly. But there’s a lot she too doesn’t say, and I think it’s the hand-waving not-saying that ultimately distanced me from My Name Is Lucy Barton. I understand the consistency in withholding what Lucy herself finds too painful to put into words, but novels are words, ultimately, and though “spare” is widely used these days as high praise, My Name Is Lucy Barton ultimately isn’t just spare as in minimalist; it’s downright sparse, and also fragmented. Some of the fragments are individually marvelous, but they never cohered, and it felt less to me as if Strout was presenting perfected miniatures than as if she had used this dispersed form to let herself off the hook, the way some essay writers divide sections with asterisks rather than working out the transitions.hild

I know that some of this is just my own preference for novels that embrace telling: I was similarly dissatisfied, for instance, with Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation, which I finished thinking she’d forgotten to actually include the novel. I love novels like Nicola Griffith’s Hild or Byatt’s The Children’s Book: novels that are immersive and luxurious, that don’t leave it up to me to do the work of story-telling, that don’t rely on my assumption that what’s in the gaps is meaningful. That’s not an absolute judgment of what is good, just a statement of what I like: as always, I invoke Henry James’s line that “nothing . . . will ever take the place of the good old fashion of ‘liking’ a work of art or not liking it.”

haruf_coverBut in fact it’s not always true that I don’t like “spare” novels. I read three of Kent Haruf’s novels recently, and the sparest of them all, Our Souls At Night, may have been my favorite. So even as I was articulating my reasons for not, ultimately, finding My Name Is Lucy Barton more satisfactory I was trying to figure out what else might be the problem. Here’s what I came up with: Haruf does tell his stories; he just doesn’t make a big deal about them. Strout, on the other hand, makes a big deal about not telling her story. Haruf does not insist on our emotional response: it arises (or doesn’t) from his people and their actions. Strout, in contrast, openly strives for emotional effect. Sometimes it works:

Always I screamed and screamed. I cried until I could hardly breathe. In this city of New York, I see children crying from tiredness, which is real, and sometimes from just crabbiness, which is real. But once in a while I see a child crying with the deepest of desperation, and I think it is one of the truest sounds a child can make. I feel almost, then, that I can hear within me the sound of my own heart breaking . . .

She strikes some notes that are powerful precisely because they withhold so much: “I thought, Pity us. We don’t mean to be so small. Pity us — it goes through my head a lot — Pity us all.” Too many such moments, though, can end up seeming not effective but affected, which is also too easily true of metafictional gestures. Both draw attention to themselves, which is an impulse that I think contradicts the simplicity and sincerity that initially drew me into My Name Is Lucy Barton.

For some reason it seems to me that Marilynne Robinson is someone who ought to be in this conversation. I’ve never read Housekeeping: maybe it should be next.

6 thoughts on ““Things I Could Not Say”: Elizabeth Strout, My Name Is Lucy Barton

  1. Ana @ things mean a lot December 1, 2016 / 7:45 pm

    Ha – I actually thought about Housekeeping halfway through this review. Please do read it – I’d love to hear what you think.


  2. Kate December 1, 2016 / 10:37 pm

    Do read Housekeeping! It’s everything Lucy Barton is not – a book that demands a second (or third, or fourth) reading. I was unexpectedly taken with Our Souls at Night, too; it was plainer than a Jhumpa Lahiri story but equally affecting.


  3. Teresa December 1, 2016 / 10:39 pm

    I’m with you on both Lucy Barton and Our Souls, although I think I appreciated what Strout was trying to do more than you did. I just don’t think she pulled it off well. I liked the fact that the story was in fragments, because that’s how memory works for me, but the level of detail was all wrong. She was forgetting or leaving out the wrong kinds of things, which made it feel artificial. Our Souls, on the other hand, felt natural in a way that this didn’t.

    And, yes, do read Housekeeping. I’d love to hear what you think of it!


  4. Kerry December 5, 2016 / 3:29 pm

    Yes, yes, yes, you articulated everything I felt about this book, which I was so annoyed at having paid a hardback price for because I felt Strout hadn’t been bothered enough to write an actual book. I’m still confused about why the people who loved it so much did, or maybe I’m just resentful about the money. PS Yes, I love Housekeeping. Spare and yet not spare AT ALL.


  5. Maria October 29, 2021 / 2:11 pm

    I loved “My Name is Lucy Barton.” It was very clear to me and spoke volumes, The same with the “Burgess Boys.”


    • Rohan Maitzen October 29, 2021 / 5:47 pm

      That’s great – for you! Different reactions to books are such interesting reminders of how different we all are as readers.


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