I’ve a tendency to read short books like this quickly. I should have reviewed it quickly too, when it was fresh baked in my mind. I thought the last line in the book was ‘My name is Lucy Barton.’
Wrong. On the same page, (three from the end). ‘But this is my story.’ A first-person account of her life.
‘And yet it is the story of many. It is Molla’s story, my college roommate’s. It may be the story of the Pretty Nicely Girls. Mommy, Mom!’
The last line reads, ‘All life amazes me.’
The narrator is an oddity, everywoman, who tells the stories of every women. Lucy Barton is not a closed book the reader finds, but a successful author. What makes her successful is the attention, the love, she gives to other people’s stories. She models herself on an author she meets in New York, Sarah Payne (get it pain).
Payne offers Lucy Barton (and other would-be writers) nuggets of wisdom about writing. If I were to use a big, little, word I’d call it subtext.
Issues of class and gender are woven into other people’s stories. Virginia Woolf’s maxim that every woman needs “a room of one’s own” to write pretty much covers it. Money matters. Lack of it leaves the narrator terrified she might need to go home.
‘This is the 1980s’ she tells us. And in some ways it’s also the story of New York, up until the planes crash into the Twin Towers. It touches, for example, on issues of Vietnam and on the AIDs epidemic. But it might well be early twentieth century, her mum had never been on a plane until she visits Lucy and her father fixed farm machinery. Dirt poor, they were isolated by poverty and they smelled. Even locals looked down on them. Her father, a former second world war soldier, we come to recognise, suffered from post-traumatic-stress disorder. Sins of the father passed to the sons. Her brother took to sleeping in a barn and reading to pigs awaiting slaughter and her sister married, unhappily, it seems, as quickly as she could. Lucy escaped that aching loneliness that writing found a way of filling.
The book begins with Lucy confined to a hospital for nine weeks. ‘A simple story, to get her appendix out.’
Coherence and the backwards and forwards motion of time are difficult for any writer to master. The Man Booker Prize 2016 nominee, written by Elizabeth Strout makes it seem easy. Read on.