My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Lucy Barton had a hard life growing up well below the poverty line in a rural town (Amgash, IL), but she somehow managed to escape. Many years, a marriage and 2 kids later, she finds herself hospitalized for what should have been a routine surgery and her mother has come to visit. This book is her stream of consciousness retelling of how that visit affected her.
As I read this book, I was basically aware of 2 (maybe 3) things: 1) I would have failed any student of mine who had turned this in as a story. 2) I absolutely identified with Lucy Barton even though my life was nothing like hers. 3) I didn’t want to put it down. Thus, as I attempt to write this review, I’m basically completely at a loss as to what to say.
I’m aware that this book breaks all the rules of storytelling as I know it. The entire thing is a woman’s account of what happened to her. I don’t mean she introduces a memory and then we follow her in flashback to experience it with her; I mean she literally tells us the entire story. In passive voice. Every single instinct I have as an English teacher and a writer tells me this book should be terrible.
And yet, I found myself wanting to read it even when I should be doing other things… like, you know, sleeping.
I think part of it is that we all have experienced at least once a relationship in which we wanted some sort of approval and never received it, and as such, we can all relate to Lucy Barton.
I also really liked how it jumped around in time. One minute we’re in the hospital with Lucy and her mother, and then the next, we’re being told about something that happened to Lucy in her childhood. This is a thing that usually really annoys me; I remember hating Cormac McCarthy in my youth because I could not stand this style of writing, and yet Elizabeth Strout manages to pull it off.
I can’t say that anything particularly remarkable happens in the way of plot, but there is a very subtle character development in our narrator, Lucy. While we are told about things that happen, we don’t experience it with the character in the traditional sense, hence nothing remarkable about the plot. It’s all just subtle reveals about the characters through what one person remembers, and she regularly stresses that she may be remembering it wrong… another thing that would have caused a failing grade if I had seen it cross my desk.
I cannot stress enough how the ability to take traditionally bad writing and turn it into a story that had me turning pages into the wee hours of the night. It’s an easy read, and while I enjoyed it, I really don’t understand why hence I’m uncomfortable giving it more than 3 stars.
It probably deserves more.