Tuesday, February 21, 2017

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

But once in a while, I see a child crying with the deepest of desperation, and I think it is one of the truest sounds a child can make. I feel almost, then, that I can hear within me the sound of my own heart breaking, the way you could hear outside--when the conditions were exactly right--the corn growing in the fields of my youth. I have met many people, even from the Midwest, who tell me that you cannot hear the corn growing, and they are wrong. You cannot hear my heart breaking, and I know that part is true, but to me, they are inseparable the sound of growing corn and the sound of my heart breaking. I have left the subway car I was riding in so I did not have to hear a child crying that way. 
I had high hopes for this book.  I remember enjoying Olive Kitteredge, and especially enjoyed the ways in which the Maine town became its own character; I was hoping Strout would do the same with New York City. Instead, she's given us a series of vignettes that don't quite hold together as a novel. Her individual sentences are emotionally evocative, and some of the chapters could stand alone as poignant short stories, but I didn't feel like the pieces fit together quite right.

That being said, there were some powerful moments--the kinds of snippets you would write down to use in the novel you're planning in your head. Lucy's childhood was dark and violent, and the ways its imprint surfaces in her adult life are so true they're hard to read:
But there are times, too--unexpected--when walking down a sunny sidewalk, or watching the top of a tree bend in the wind, or seeing a November sky close down over the East River, I am suddenly filled with the knowledge of darkness so deep that a sound might escape from my mouth, and I will step into the nearest clothing store and talk with a stranger about the shape of sweaters newly arrived. This must be the way most of us maneuver through the world, half knowing, half not, visited by memories that can't possibly be true. But when I see others walking with confidence down the sidewalk, as though they are free completely from terror, I realize I don't know how others are. 
Strout captures the paradox of being alone in a city full of people, of sensing the underlying connectedness of humans while still feeling utterly isolated. Also the phrase "the shape of sweaters newly arrived" is lovely and an example of the cadence of Strout's prose at its best.

I'm torn about this book. Aesthetically, I loved it. I dog-eared every other page and re-read some sentences over and over and over. But it felt like a collection of beautifully written moments, that don't hang together as a cohesive whole. As long as you go in with that expectation, it's enjoyably sad and beautiful enough that it's definitely worth reading.

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