Sunday, December 20, 2015

Depths in simplicity

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout


If there is one quote from this novel that both sums it up, and yet is also the exact opposite of what this story tries to do, it is this: "we never know, and never would know, what it would be like to understand another person fully. It seems a simple thought, but as I get older I see more and more that she had to tell us that." The "she" in this quote refers to Sarah Payne, an author that holds a writing workshop that Lucy attends. This is a very truthful and telling line, both for writers and readers alike. Yet, this is exactly what authors attempt to convey to their readers - a story where we can understand another person fully. That Elizabeth Strout (author of the Pulitzer Prize winning collection of short stories Olive Kittredge) is able to reveal the character of Lucy Barton to her readers so fully, is only part of her genius. The other part is that she does it with such economy of text (just over 200 pages), making this book virtually magical.

Strout gives us Lucy Barton, who is a very simple person, in self-observed hindsight. The event at the center of this story is Lucy's hospitalization due to mysterious complications following appendix removal surgery. More specifically, Lucy's catalyst for telling this is her mother's visit with her, as she was recovering. This chapter in Lucy's life appears to be smack dab in the middle of her timeline, but since Strout tells Lucy's story in hindsight, we also get glimpses into events and incidents from both before and after that episode. This, of course, rounds out Lucy's character as we gain insights into both her life and why she writes down her thoughts in this semi-memoir of a story.

As I mentioned above, what is most incredible isn't the story itself, or even Lucy Barton's character, but how Strout presents us with this story in relatively few pages of prose. The best word that comes to mind is obviously evocative, while some might even call it poetic. This brings to mind something akin to the style of my all-time favorite writer, Michael Ondaatje. Ondaatje began his writing career as a poet, and this heavily influenced his fiction, whereby he always seems to include elements of poetry into his prose. The artistry in this is that both Strout and Ondaatje achieve this depth of redolence without ever sounding flowery or poetic.

Obviously, if I'm comparing Strout with Ondaatje, I must be enamored. So yes, I admit it, I adored this book, not only because Strout makes me feel and see her characters; but also because after I finished reading, I believed I really knew and understood them. Most importantly, I loved this book because she did all this with a surface of simplicity that belies the complexity that lies seamlessly underneath. This book gets five out of five stars, and I'm already reserving a top spot for it for my "best of 2016 books" next year.



"My Name is Lucy Barton" by Elizabeth Strout, US release date January 16, 2016 (UK release date February 6, 2016), is available for pre-order from Amazon.com, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, UK, Canada & Australia), iTunes, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery) as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for allowing me to read an ARC of this book via NetGalley.

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