Elizabeth Strout’s latest novel is a tour de force. Unlike her previous books (e.g., Abide with Me, Olive Kitteredge, The Burroughs Boys) it has a small cast of characters, a single, restricted setting, and a first-person narrator whose perspective controls the entire story. Strout turns these restrictions into novelistic power through the credibility and intensity of the narrative voice. Primarily about a mother-daughter relationship, it’s also a novel about writing. The main character, Lucy Barton, a young novelist and mother of two, is in the hospital with a serious but as yet undiagnosed illness. Lucy’s husband, when he’s not working, stays home taking care of her daughters. Her mother, against all odds, has come to New York from rural Illinois to visit. The story consists of scenes between mother and daughter in the present, and flashbacks to the heroine’s childhood, in which she and her brother were treated as outcasts because of the family’s terrible poverty.
The narrator craves her mother’s love, but her mother doesn’t know how to show love, or understand how deeply her daughter needs to know that she is loved by her mother. Whether the mother thinks it’s weak to want love that badly, or thinks that love should go without saying and that asking people to say it is breach of taste, or is embarrassed by even thinking about such things, we don’t know. The mother has had a hard life—she was afraid all the time as a child and as an adult has always lived in extreme poverty. Being strong and tough is important to her, and perhaps, in her mind, incompatible with demonstrations of love. Lucy comes to realize this and is able to forgive her mother for it. “I feel that people may not understand that my mother could never say I love you. I feel that people may not understand: It was all right.” At another point, as evidence of her honesty and willingness to give her mother the benefit of the doubt, Lucy says: “I have no memory of my mother ever kissing me. She may have kissed me, though; I may be wrong.”
The style’s slightly flat, slightly artificial simplicity made me pause now and then and think, how can this narrator be a novelist if she’s so unsophisticated? But then I realized: it’s her novel that I’m reading! Her lack of sophistication convinces me she doesn’t know how to finesse things, doesn’t know how to cover over things that are embarrassing, or avoid saying things that must be said. It sounds as if Lucy’s words are being forced from her throat by an inner urging, as if it were not a question of her choosing words, but rather of the words choosing themselves. This sense that the narrator’s words arise spontaneously from deep inside makes you feel you’re in the presence of the naked truth, that it’s the speaker’s self on offer, not just some words she’s saying. I felt this way throughout the entire book.
Into the midst of the exchanges between mother and daughter and the flashbacks to childhood, Strout drops the sayings of Lucy Barton’s writing teacher, a woman named Sarah Payne, in poor health and no longer publishing, who has clearly taught Lucy—the author of a successful first novel—everything she needs to know. “Sarah Payne said, If there is a weakness in your story, address it head-on, take it in your teeth and address it, before the reader really knows. This is where you will get your authority.” A piece of advice I hope never to forget. Here’s another, which has taken me a while to digest: “You will have only one story. You’ll write your one story in many ways. Don’t ever worry about your story. You have only one.” And finally, the stunner: “Sarah Payne spoke to us about going to the page with a heart as open as the heart of God.”
Strout establishes an equivalence between the openness required of the true writer and the openness of accepting all our experience, accepting and acknowledging it, no matter how awful it may be. The advice about going to the page with an open heart comes right after a student of Sarah Payne’s has told her after class, in Lucy’s presence, a story about an airline pilot who had a nervous breakdown and went around the house masturbating all the time. It gradually becomes clear that that is what Lucy’s father, a World War II veteran, did while she was growing up. Her struggle is to open her heart, even to this.
Lucy Barton says that she writes so that people won’t be lonely. I believe the same is true of Elizabeth Strout. The emotional authenticity of the novel makes me feel I have a friend in her the whole time and makes her wish come true. ~
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