Short and Strout: My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (no spoilers)

cover image of My Name Is Lucy BartonMy Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout is a very short novel – just over 200 pages – but I’ve spent a disproportionately long time thinking about it before reviewing it!

When I first finished reading My Name Is Lucy Barton, I thought, “Is that it?” – disappointed at the spareness of the writing and the inconclusiveness of the story, especially after the author’s last book, The Burgess Boys, which takes on family dysfunction in a more traditional style.

After rereading the passages I highlighted in the book, though, and considering the book as a whole, I see how it coalesces around the idea that a novelist has only one story that he/she writes in different ways. So, depending on how you look at it, My Name Is Lucy Barton is either a brilliantly written work of literary fiction – a realistic, slow-burning glimpse into a writer’s psyche – or a segmented collection of journal-type entries with no satisfying narrative arc.

My Name Is Lucy Barton has more in common with Olive Kitteridge – a collection of linked stories – than with The Burgess Boys. Written in the style of a memoir of a successful novelist looking back on a lengthy hospital stay as a young mother during which her own emotionally and geographically distant mother came to stay with her, while her two daughters and husband visited only rarely and she worried that she would die and leave her children motherless.

It’s not even really written in the style of a memoir. More of a writer’s notebook, or a collection of memories or partially remembered stories, carefully written down and recorded as a way of sorting out or coming to terms with the past. The writer (Lucy Barton) seems to be trying to remind herself that there were times when she was happy, and there were people who cared for her and about her, despite the overall air of melancholy that pervades her stories and memories.

My Name Is Lucy Barton is best for literary fiction readers who like the idea of delving into a writer’s memories – it’s a very interior, psychological story – and don’t care about there being no plot and a hard-to-discern story line.

If you liked The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, you would probably like My Name Is Lucy Barton. This novella reminded me of that one in the way the narrators of both are looking back as older adults and trying to parse events in the past to see repercussions, find a theme, or sort out the truth of the matter.

My Name Is Lucy Barton
Strout, Elizabeth
Random House
Jan. 12, 2016
208 pp./$26 US

Disclosure: I received an e-ARC of this book from the publisher through NetGalley.

Other opinions on My Name Is Lucy Barton:

AudioFile (audiobook review)
Books, The Universe, and Everything
Lakeside Musing
Necromancy Never Pays

Sarah’s Bookshelves


12 thoughts on “Short and Strout: My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (no spoilers)”

  1. Thank you so much for linking to my review! And, interestingly, I never really considered this a look into a writer’s psyche, but I can see it now that you mention it. I thought of it more as a woman reflecting on her life – particularly her childhood and marriage.

    And also interestingly, I was not a fan of The Sense of an Ending, but loved this one! However, I read Sense so long ago and I do think my reading taste has evolved since then…I now have more of an appreciation for quieter, beautifully written books so I wonder what I’d think of Sense if I read it now.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on my review! My Name Is Lucy Barton struck me as unfinished, at first, more of a writer’s notes for a character, but it’s more likely that the author was trying to create the feeling of memories coming to the surface, almost at random?

  2. I like the way Lucy tries to see a pattern, maybe an impetus, in those early memories. I’m not so sure I like the way her memories are all so stark. Couldn’t there have been some happier ones? It’s like Strout doesn’t think her writing will be taken seriously unless it’s all brooding and angsty.

    1. I saw a review (NYT?) that mentioned that although the book seems melancholy, over all, Lucy Barton also remembers many moments when she felt “simple joy.” Which seemed true when I read parts of the book again. At first I didn’t think it would be a good book for most book clubs because it doesn’t have a real beginning, middle, and end, but now it appears that it actually generates a lot of discussion!

    1. It grew on me after I finished it and kept thinking about it! When I finished Olive Kitteridge way back when, though, I remember thinking that everyone should read it, and I didn’t think that with My Name Is Lucy Barton. Also, while readiing, I think I kept getting distracted by wondering how much of Lucy the narrator was drawn from the author’s own life, since she made them both writers who became surprisingly successful, financially speaking.

  3. So interesting that you compared this to The Sense of an Ending… I never thought of putting those two together, but they do have quite a bit in common! Sense was also a favorite the year I read it and it remains on my shelf for a reread. Strout is always amazing,

    Thank you for linking to my blog.

    1. I bought my own copy of The Sense of an Ending, too, and mean to reread it someday! I haven’t caught up on the author’s other books that came after it, though.

  4. I loved this book! It reminded me that great writing still exists. I thought this book was the epitome of what brilliant literature is. I absolutely devoured it and couldn’t believe it had taken me so long to read Strout before.

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