My Name Lucy Barton
Author: Elizabeth Stout
Jan 12, 2016 | 193 Pages
Ingram Best of the Best
Kirkus Starred Review
Booklist Starred Review
ARC e-reader provided by Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
BOOK REVIEW REDUX
A year ago I posted a review of My Name is Lucy Barton. My book club will be reading it next month and I decided to re-read the book and to take a look at my last posting. What a sorry self-centered post! The book flushed out some submerged emotions from my own childhood and I responded with a pity party posting. Here’s the review I should have written the first time!
There was a time,and it was many years ago now, when I had to stay in a hospital for almost nine weeks…To begin with, it was a simple story: I had gone into the hospital to have my appendix out…And then a fever arrived…About three weeks after I was admitted… I found my mother sitting in a chair at the foot of my bed…I had not seen my mother for years, and I kept staring at her…….
Lucy grew up in the tiny rural town of Amgash, Illinois; one of those eyesore communities where homes were visibly decaying and their yards reflected their barren lives. In this hardscrabble community, Lucy’s family stood on the bottom rung of poverty.
Lucy’s childhood was lost in the tension and silence of a family struggling to survive. Each face etched with hopelessness, just breathing to stay alive in the present, struggling with the past and praying to survive what ever the future would bring. The Bartons lived for many years in a garage with the barest of essentials; starving for physical and emotional warmth. The three Barton children suffered daily, facing harsh discipline while living in dire conditions.
Telling a lie and wasting food were always things to be punished for. Otherwise, on occasion and without warning my parents – and it was usually my mother and usually in the presence of our father – struck us impulsively and vigorously.
Lucy’s father harbored demons brought home from WWII and in unpredictable moments would release the Kraken in a moment of bizarre and uncontrollable behavior that Lucy named the “Thing”. Her mother, a lost soul herself, unable to express love, was torn between her marriage and her children.
Bullied by peers, alone in every imaginable way, Lucy sought refuge in the few books available at her small school. These books took her places she couldn’t have dreamed existed and in the end proved to be her ticket into the larger world. Lucy, without real friends, sought recognition through achievement and excellence at school. Yet at home, Lucy’s academic accomplishments were unacknowledged by her parents – preferring to ignore them in deference to her two siblings who showed no interest in education.
There were moments of kindness in her childhood – a friendly janitor who looked the other way as Lucy stayed late in her warm classroom to do her homework, the teacher who recognized Lucy’s hunger for reading and encouraged her, and a guidance counselor who helped Lucy obtain a full scholarship to college.
She guardedly made friends, flourished in her love of words, and astonished herself when she fell in love… with her husband, William. William, the son of a German prisoner-of-war, had been living on the East coast snared in the clutches of his needy widowed mother. He sought escape in a college in the Midwest. Buoyed by love and promises of a bright future, William and Lucy headed to meet Lucy’s parents with their happy plans to marry and move to New York City.
[My father] looked at William…I saw in my father’s face great contortions, the kind that preceded what as a child I had called..the Thing…My father becoming very anxious and not in control of himself.
My mother said, ‘Your father has a lot of trouble with German people. You should have told us’.
I know Daddy was in the war,,,but he never talked about any of that.
‘Your father doesn’t [talk about it]’
Why is that?
‘Because it wouldn’t be decent. Who in God’s name brought you up?’
Lucy and William did marry and moved to New York City. They became the parents to two daughters who never knew their grandparents.
Lucy’s parents never came to the wedding and she never saw either of them again…until years later…Lucy went into the hospital with appendicitis. What should have been routine surgery left Lucy hospitalized for nine weeks with a fever of unknown origin. Her husband, terrified of hospitals, stayed home with the girls and worked at shutting out his wife’s needs. After three lonely weeks, Lucy awoke from a nap to discover her mother seated in a chair by her bed. She stayed by Lucy’s side for five days in her hospital room.
Years after her mother’s visit to the hospital, Lucy attended a writer’s workshop. A prominent author leading the workshop encouraged Lucy to write her story- warts and all. She found that opening that door to her past was necessary to finding her way in the future. Central to her life’s story are those five precious days with her mother at the hospital.
As I re-read the book , I found myself reading it more slowly – savoring the words not spoken. The first time through, affected personally by own memories, I had missed what made those five days so memorable to Lucy. There’s a heavy air of loneliness and insecurity in Lucy’s life. But in the end, she has matured, grown, reflected and shed some of her emotional baggage in her efforts to find peace in her heart and in her life. Not everyone will agree with her decisions…but don’t we all have to reach for our true north to find our way?
The first time I read the following words, I missed the point. I saw only a mother who could not express her love to her daughter. The second time, I felt the love in the silence and between the unspoken words. This mother and daughter never grew close, shared words of love, or interacted in each other’s lives after the hospital visit. But there was solace in knowing her mother loved her. As Lucy tells us…She was loved. Imperfectly. And that was enough.
“Mommy, do you love me?
My mother shook her head. Wizzle, stop.
“Come on, Mom, tell me.” I began to laugh, and she began to laugh too.
Wizzle, for heaven’s sake.”
I sat up and, like a child, clapped my hands.
“Mom! Do you love me, do you love me, do you love me?”
Silly girl…You silly, silly girl.
I lay back down and closed my eyes…”Mom, my eyes are closed.”
Lucy, you stop now. I heard the mirth in her voice.
There was a silence for a while. I was happy.
When your eyes are closed, she said.
“You love me when my eyes are closed?”
When your eyes are closed, she said.
And we stopped the game, but I was so happy.
Highly recommended. Would make a very good book club selection.