Hospital rooms often double as confessionals, especially when a patient's life might be in the balance. Between sterile and impersonal walls, accompanied by the heedless, steady beeps and blips of medical machinery, stories spill out and unspoken emotions are given voice.
Just such a room is the setting for Elizabeth Strout's memorable new novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton. The narrator of the title recounts for us, about three decades after it happened, a hospital stay of almost nine weeks she endured when she was an aspiring young writer in the mid 1980s. After a routine appendectomy, she was struck by a mysterious, stubborn infection. "I had a husband and two small daughters at home; I missed my girls terribly, and I worried about them so much I was afraid it was making me sicker."
If you noted that she didn't miss her husband and assumed that was significant, you may have read Strout's finely crafted, insightful fiction before. She is best known for Olive Kitteridge, a book of 13 related short stories whose common thread is the title character, a blunt and often unlikable teacher in a small town in Maine. It won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and in 2014 was made into an HBO miniseries that starred Frances McDormand and won seven Emmys.
Lucy Barton is a novel, but it too layers many stories, many of them told by Lucy's mother, whom she has not seen for years. "About three weeks after I was admitted, I turned my eyes from the window late one afternoon and found my mother sitting in a chair at the foot of my bed."
Her mother greets her in a voice that "sounded shy but urgent," calling her by a childhood nickname, Wizzle. She shrugs off her sudden appearance at the hospital in New York City — Lucy's room has a view of the Chrysler Building — after taking the first airplane flight of her life from Amgash, the town in rural Illinois where Lucy grew up, and which she exited as soon as she was able.
Lucy's childhood, she tells us, was one of harsh poverty and isolation. Her father repaired farm machinery and her mother took in sewing, but Lucy and her brother and sister often went hungry. Until Lucy was 11, her family lived in the garage of her uncle's house, a place bone-chillingly cold in the prairie winters, and throughout her childhood there were no books, newspapers or television in their home.
Lucy carries still a memory, sharp in its emotional impact but fuzzy on factual explanation, of spending whole days when she was 5 or so locked in her father's truck while her parents worked and her siblings were at school. "Always I screamed and screamed. I cried until I could hardly breathe."
Lucy longs to have her austere mother open up to her, not only to explain why the family lived as it did but to connect with her emotionally. Instead, her mother tells her stories about other people, neighbors and acquaintances Lucy hasn't thought about for years, even about Elvis Presley. Her mother's references to her other children are oblique; she doesn't even mention her husband, Lucy's father, for most of her visit, which ends as abruptly as it began.
Lucy's interest in stories is both personal and professional. Despite the absence of books at home, she tells us, "In third grade I read a book that made me want to write a book." She becomes an avid reader because "the books brought me things. This is my point. They made me feel less alone." She has already published a few short stories in literary journals when she enters the hospital; the Lucy who tells us the story 30 years later, of course, tells it to us in a novel.
She has, in the meantime, learned about writing from several sources. One is a novelist named Sarah Payne, whom she admires and takes a workshop with, even though, Lucy tells us, Payne clearly finds it difficult to engage with students and "I realized that even in her books, she was not telling exactly the truth, she was always staying away from something."
Yet when Payne reads the draft of the novel we are reading, she tells Lucy, "But if you find yourself protecting anyone as you write this piece, remember this: You're not doing it right." It's advice seconded by Lucy's urbane neighbor, Jeremy, a psychoanalyst who tells her artists must be "ruthless."
Lucy thought that she was, at least about her family. She tells us that at one point she consulted a plastic surgeon: "I went there to not look like my mother. The doctor said that almost everyone came in the first time and said they looked like their mother and didn't want to."
But Lucy's mother may be her first and best teacher, a storyteller more subtle than her daughter can understand until much later. "This must be the way most of us maneuver through the world," Lucy says, "half knowing, half not, visited by memories that can't possibly be true."
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.