Pulitzer-prize winner Elizabeth Strout has done it again with this heartfelt gem of a book. It’s one of those books where nothing really happens but that’s not what’s important. It’s a captured moment that reflects a lifetime of complexity in the relationship between a mother and daughter.
Until I was eleven years old, we lived in a garage. The garage belonged to my great-uncle who lived in the house next door, and in the garage there was only a trickle of cold water from a makeshift sink. Insulation nailed against the wall held a stuffing like pink cotton candy, but it was fiberglass and could cut us, we were told. I was puzzled by that, and would stare at it often, such a pretty pink thing I could not touch; and I was puzzled to think it was called “glass”; odd to think now how much time it seemed to take up in my head, the puzzle of that pretty pink and dangerous fiberglass we lived right next to every minute.
Lucy Barton recovers in hospital after complications following what should have been a routine surgery. Her mother visits her, and as they talk, their conversation reveals the effect that poverty has had on their lives, their perceptions of themselves, their fear of judgment by others and their own, difficult relationship.
(O corn of my youth, you were my friend! – running and running between rows, running as only a child, alone, in summer can run, running to that stark tree that stood in the midst o the cornfield-) In my memory the sky was gray as we drove, and it appeared to rise – not clear, but rise – and it was very beautiful, the sense of it rising and growing lighter, the gray having the slightest touch of blue, the trees full with their green leaves.
I remember my husband saying he had not expected my house to be so small.
I wasn’t sure what to expect with this little book. It was a quick, quiet and thoughtful read, and when I finished it, all I wanted to do was call my mother. Lucy has a kind of innocence that seeps through her words. She is a quiet observer of other people, and the subtly placed mannerisms in her speech give a strong sense of her character and background. This is the epitome of literary fiction, as Strout plays with form, metaphor, stream of consciousness and descriptive motifs, altogether weaving layers of depth into this simple, but evocative story. It’s a sketch of two characters and how they play off each other, and how the masked things they say to each other quietly express the real truths that they feel.
But that is how sensitive we both were, my mother and I. There is that constant judgment in this world: How are we going to make sure we do not feel inferior to another?
As Lucy’s mother launches into little stories about Lucy’s childhood acquaintances and their marriages, and how their marriages fall apart, while avoiding talking directly about her own relationship with Lucy’s father, what she isn’t saying becomes as clear as what is being said. Likewise, Lucy’s relationship with her father is hinted at, but never directly expressed, while the secret yearning for affection from her father-figure doctor shows just how much love she craves from him.
He said, “What is your job as a writer of fiction?” And she said that her job as a writer of fiction was to report on the human condition, to tell us who we are and what we think and what we do.
The descriptions of Lucy’s childhood were the most heart-affecting parts of the book. Reading about her being locked in a truck, or growing up living in an uncle’s garage, or wanting to stay late at school because it was warm there; the whole story is terribly sad, but Lucy holds onto her fond memories of what home meant to her in evocative and poetic descriptions of the corn fields, and the tree that she loved. At the same time, she constantly doubts and doubles back on herself, as if she is scared to commit certainty to anything, especially her own memories.
This is not the story of my marriage. I cannot tell that story: I cannot take hold of, or lay out for anyone, the many swamps and grasses and pockets of fresh air and dank air that have gone over us.
Finally, beyond Lucy’s poor beginnings and her relationship with her mother, Lucy’s conversations with an author allow Strout to express the difficulties of writing fiction and the fear of judgment and criticism from others. The fictional author comments on the ignorant reader’s inability to distinguish between the author’s voice, and narrative voice, and the difficulty of writing one’s own truths into a work of fiction. I feel like this will be a valuable novel to study more deeply; I think it’s something that would reward re-reading, and a quick read at only 208 pages, it deserves a place on any shelf.