Published: January 12, 2016
I LOVE Elizabeth Strout’s writing! “Olive Kitteridge” is one of my favorite books, and this reminded me of that novel in the beginning, but it was a very different kind of book. “Olive Kitteridge” is a collection of short stories which involved characters in the same town whose lives intersected, some in very major, others minor ways. This book was told by a single narrator and even though it was divided into chapters, it flowed like one continuous story. The writing is profound and soul-searching, and her characters are so deeply human. Such depth of emotion and feeling are felt while reading this.
“My name is Lucy Barton” begins with the narrator reflecting on a particular time in her life when she was hospitalized for appendicitis which becomes complicated by mysterious persistent fevers following the surgery. This was a pivotal point in the a narrator’s life to reflect back on her childhood with the poverty and abuse that accompanied it and well as project forward into the future as to what she wanted from life and what was to become her life.
There is a powerful dialogue between Lucy and her mother within the hospital and during this, what goes unsaid is just as important, maybe more important than what is said. The mother tells Lucy story after story of failing marriages, but there is hardly a mention of Lucy’s father.
Sarah Payne, a character in the novel later tells Lucy of her writing about this time period: ” This is a story about love, you know that. This is a story of a man who has been tortured every day of his life for things he did in the war. This is the story of a wife who stayed with him, because most wives did in that generation, and she comes to her daughter’s hospital room and talks compulsively about everyone’s marriage going bad, she doesn’t even know it, doesn’t even know what she’s doing. This is a story about a mother who loves her daughter. Imperfectly. Because we all love imperfectly.” This quote speaks to the major theme of the book so well: it is about how love can coexist with abuse, neglect, poverty. The book also speaks to memory and how we can all remember things differently. How we may choose to hide certain memories or pretend things never happened to cover up for the people we love. It is shocking towards the end, that she speaks with her brother and sister regularly and how much they choose not to speak about or ask each other about. Lucy Barton is reminded by Sarah Payne, “to go to the page without judgement” reminding her “that we never knew, and never would know, what it would be like to understand another person fully.”
Another quote from the book that I really liked: “It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people. It happens everywhere, and all the time. Whatever we call it, I think it’s the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down.” Throughout the book, Lucy feels distanced and alienated from others because of her poor upbringing. She and her family were ignored by others in town, and when she went off to college, she often felt that others made comments conveying that they were feeling superior to her circumstances. She comments to her friend, Jeremy, that she envied the men with HIV, because at least they had a community. She even feels distanced from her husband by the different circumstances of their upbringing.
This book is filled with love, but also with feelings of melancholy, sadness, fear, terror, loneliness, abandonment. The characters, feelings, relationships and sentiments are described in such a real, human manner, that the book is very affecting. I highly recommend this book to anyone, but do think it would appeal more to women. It was a book that I did not want to end because I loved it so much, but it was just perfect the way it was! A huge !!!!!!!
- If you have read other Elizabeth Strout novels, which is your favorite and why?
- Why do you think Lucy experienced so much loneliness throughout her life?
- Why do you think teaching was so exhausting for Sarah Payne?
- What do you suppose Sarah was hiding from her writing?
- Do you think Lucy should be somewhat responsible for helping her siblings out?
- There were many horrifying memories of Lucy as well as others, like her friend, Molla. Was there one that struck you particularly? In what way do you think Molla and Lucy’s childhood memories were similar?
- Jeremy tells Lucy to “be ruthless as a writer.” What do you think he means by this? Do you believe that Lucy follows his advice?
- What do you imagine Lucy’s mother’s childhood to have been like?
- In what way or ways do Lucy and her siblings suffer abuse from their father?
Discussion Questions from Elizabeth Strout’s blog
New York Times Review