My Name is Lucy Barton

On a writing course Lucy Barton is told that ‘we all have only one story to tell‘. Now a successful writer she remembers a time in the mid 1980’s when she was first living in New York with her husband and two young daughters and a trip to hospital for a routine operation lasted for nine weeks.

One day she realises that her mother, who she hasn’t seen for years, is sitting by her hospital bed. She stays for five days and through their conversations we get Lucy’s story. Memories of poverty, humiliation and loneliness are told in a solid, unfussy style. She speaks directly to us, as her memories and her mothers anecdotes interrupt and overlap each other and she wonders about the vagaries of her memory as she thinks about her life.

‘We were oddities, our family, even in that tiny rural town of Amgash, Illinois.’

Her childhood living in a garage with her parents and brother and sister, with just ‘a trickle of water from a makeshift sink’ is marked by the kind of cultural and financial deprivation that separates you from your peers, since with no access to television or magazines you simply can’t join in. Lonely and isolated Lucy find her refuge in reading and learns quickly that home work takes on a new meaning when you can stay in a warm classroom to get it done. With good grades she wins a scholarship to college and once there tries to fit in by imitating her class mates.

Laura Linney in the stage adaptation
(Laura Linney in the stage adaptation)

But with a childhood based on survival she isn’t prepared for the world at all, and even with the wisdom and success she’s garnered she can’t imitate the confidence that comes from a loving home or the relaxed attitude that comes from a home not on the breadline. Even when she’s older and married she can’t get used to the ease with which her husband buys tickets for a football game and then buys hotdogs and beer without a second thought, it’s the kind of thing I don’t think Lucy will ever be able to do.

Families are odd, complex things, and through Lucy’s memories and her mothers stories about people from their past, we get a hint of the roots that tie this dysfunctional family together. It’s a chaotic, secretive family, as Lucy says of her sister Vicky: ‘we were equally friendless and equally scorned, and we eyed each other with the same suspicion with which we eyed the rest of the world.’ Vicky is angry and her brother reads The Little House on the Prairie into adulthood The parents seem unable to provide any stability, a father who can humiliate his son in public but then cradle him like a baby, or lock his young daughter in a truck for hours on end and then soothe her in his arms, and a mother who beats them without warning. And yet, Lucy is overwhelmingly happy that her mother has come to see her and delighted that she calls her ‘Wizzle’, her family pet name. And despite each resenting or ignoring Lucy’s success she still sends money home.

There aren’t any answers or neat endings, Lucy talks about her life in a matter of fact way and I thought this was an excellent novel about family trauma, new beginnings, New York, writing and the power of reading.

23 thoughts on “My Name is Lucy Barton

    1. I had no idea what to expect, I think I bought this in a charity shop a few years ago because I had heard of it! I did enjoy it from the beginning, I liked her voice very much and she brought up some aspects of living in poverty that I haven’t seen alluded to before, but I can attest too! She hasn’t gone into my top 5 but I’d certainly read another.

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  1. I enjoyed your review, even though I didn’t like My Name is Lucy Barton at all. I think the character’s storytelling was too cryptic for me.
    I did enjoy Anything is Possible though, which gives the reader the chance to get to know Lucy through the eyes of her family and community.
    I keep wondering if I should re-read My Name is Lucy Barton again to see what I missed the first time.

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    1. I wouldn’t have thought you would have missed anything, her voice probably just wasn’t for you – I’m interested in a book that shows how her family think about her, there seemed to be a lot of resentment. I’ll give Anything is Possible a read, I hadn’t even heard of it so thank you Rose!

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    1. This is the only one I’ve read and I’ll certainly read some more, she seemed to understand Lucy very well, I hope you do read it I’d love to read your review! In the meantime, Olive Kitteridge is on my list, thank you.


  2. The title sounds familiar, but from your description (though nothing that I’d anticipated) this story’s clearly magisterial in revealing how upbringing both makes you and scars you for life.

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    1. which is why I’m interested to read Anything is Possible, which Rose mentions above, and see how the rest of her family view her. Family situations are fascinating aren’t they, we’re all living in the same situation but we deal with it and if effects us so differently?

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  3. Hi Jane! I read (and enjoyed, very much) your post the other day, was getting ready to leave a comment, got distracted & didn’t (probably a cat ran through the run or something. I’m afraid my attention level is much like theirs).
    I was slow to jump on the Strout bandwagon (I read Olive Kitteridge years after it became popular) but once I did — oh my! I think Strout’s a wonderful writer and I now automatically pre-order her novels, the ultimate test of fandom, I suppose. I very much enjoyed all three of her Lucy novels (I read Oh, William late last fall). I noticed that, in one of your responses to a comment, you picked up on the fact that Strout is so good at depicting the effects of poverty, which is one of the things that struck me as well, and which I think is rarely done (or mentioned, by critics). I just find Strout has an amazing ability to depict a character, warts and all, but to do so with compassion and understanding. At some point, I’d like to go back and read some of her earlier work, such as The Burgess Boys and/or Amy and Isabelle.

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    1. I’m very much looking forward to the other Lucy novels, I don’t think I’m finished with her story yet! I thought she dealt with poverty in a very realistic down to earth way, not making it seem glamorous or cosy but just the daily grind of living outside society. Interesting that her brother reads The Little House on the Prairie?

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  4. This sounds interesting. I have read both the Olive Kitteridge books and enjoyed them. They tackle the same themes of family dysfunction and alienation. Strout does not seem to like neat endings. Most of the stories in Olive Kitteridge end on an ambiguous note.

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  5. This one sounds good and I do have a soft spot for introspective storytelling. Poverty is interesting theme, which I don’t read about too often, but Unsettled Ground (about rural poverty in the UK) made a huge impression last year. Let’s see if I get to this one, I have been meaning to try this author for a while.

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  6. I read this one a few years ago. It doesn’t particularly stand out to me. I remember the hospital and the conversations with her mother, I just could never get a good grasp on the story. I could have been distracted or I could have gotten all that I was supposed to. I wasn’t aware there were more about Lucy.
    I have read Olive Kitteridge and Olive, Again. Both good, but I prefer the first.
    I’ve also read The Burgess Boys, (they show up in Olive, Again), and I think I like that one the best of all that I’ve read from her. It’s a little bit heavy but I remember feeling like there was so much to discuss. Maybe give that one a try.

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