In her lovely and heartbreaking new novel, “My Name Is Lucy Barton,” Portland native Elizabeth Strout has produced a major work in minimalist form. This is a spare, slender book, written in vignettes that fit together like a puzzle. Class struggles, family secrets and a mother-daughter relationship for the ages make for an engrossing, provocative read.

Strout’s harrowing tale unfolds in a Manhattan hospital, where Lucy, married with two young daughters, has gone for an appendectomy that turns into a nine-week ordeal. Three weeks in, her estranged mother arrives at her son-in-law’s request. Though the two women haven’t spoken in years, Lucy’s mother can’t get beyond gossip and chatter – and even that with difficulty.

“Her being there, using my pet name which I had not heard in ages, made me feel warm and liquid-filled,” Lucy says. Then later, “It was the sound of my mother’s voice I most wanted. What she said didn’t matter.”

Such is the push-and-pull, the lifelong struggle of a daughter who needs to extract, and believe in, her mother’s love.

This is, at best, an uphill battle. On the fifth day of her mother’s visit, Lucy is suddenly threatened with the prospect of more surgery and is sent for another test. In response, her mother declares that she’s leaving to go home, over Lucy’s panicked protestation. If there is an opposite of maternal instinct, Lucy’s mother is its embodiment. No doubt, many readers will discern a resemblance to the protagonist in Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Olive Kitteridge.” It’s a toss-up which woman is more brittle.

The story moves back and forth, from the hospital; to the rural Illinois outback of Lucy’s childhood, where the family lived in a garage with no hot water, toilet, books nor TV; to New York City, where Lucy became a wife, mother and author.


In the matter of Lucy’s chosen profession, Strout introduces a bit of metafiction. Lucy attends a writing workshop led by an author named Sarah Payne. When it comes time to show her own work, Lucy submits a draft about her mother’s visit to the hospital. Payne heartily endorses the piece and, in effect, highlights key themes in Strout’s novel.

“People will go after you for combining poverty and abuse,” Payne says to Lucy. “Never ever defend your work. This is a story about love, you know that…. This is a story about a mother who loves her daughter. Imperfectly. Because we all love imperfectly. But if you find yourself protecting anyone as you write this piece, remember this: you’re not doing it right.”

This didactic turn is also a gentle pushback against Lucy’s powers of denial. Lucy is overly grateful for even the smallest rote kindnesses from people, a result of growing up amid extreme dysfunction. She constantly defends both her parents, despite their chronic inability to provide even a modicum of safety or comfort.

Still Lucy comes to recognize in friends, even in her own daughter, that the longing for one’s mother is both universal and singular. And she’s reminded of a pivotal comment from the writing workshop: “We all have only one story,” said Sarah Payne. When Lucy finally accepts that her turbulent narrative may be similar to that of others, and yet fully her own, the book’s assertive title emerges.

“There is the question of how children become aware of what the world is, and how to act in it,” Strout writes.

That is the most fundamental of questions and one that yields vastly different answers for Lucy and her siblings. Lucy is the sole member of her family to flee the constraints of a stunted, impoverished life. That she remains hopeful and forgiving, against all odds, is partly a matter of temperament, partly a survival tactic. In the character of Lucy, Strout has fashioned one of the great resilient modern heroines.

Joan Silverman writes op-eds, essays and book reviews. Her work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune and Dallas Morning News.

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