Lucy Barton is More Lightweight than Englightening

By Elizabeth Strout
Random House, 208 pp.
* *

In her review for the New York Times Claire Messud asserted that wasn't "a scintilla of sentimentality" in Elizabeth Strout's latest. She's right—it's not a scintilla (speck); it's a boulder. I suppose we can say that its namesake protagonist finds something of herself by the novel's end, but the passive Lucy Barton is no Olive Kitteridge. Lucy Barton has been hyped to the skies, but my reading of it is that it's manipulative and lightweight. If you want me to believe that Lucy is any sort of role model for women, you'd better give that character better nicknames than "Wizzle" and "Button" and a life that doesn't live down to those handles.

At its best it is a book about tough love, the meaning of "home," and the search for self. We first meet Lucy in a New York City hospital bed during the 1980s—gravely ill from an unnamed infection. She yearns for her young daughters, who are kept at bay, and for affection from her cold fish husband who is "too busy" to visit her in the hospital. Instead she gets her mother, whom she hasn't seen for years and who flies to New York from the family home near Amgash, Illinois, to spend five days at Lucy' bedside. Their conversations take up the bulk of the book and, in dribbles punctuated by gossip about people Lucy barely recalls, we get flashbacks about Lucy's childhood before she fled Illinois for college and a writer's life in Manhattan. The conversations are, on the surface, mostly banal, but I got the point. They reminded me of strained chit-chat I used to have with my own parents after I moved away–complete with feigning interest in the lives of people whose names I didn't actually remember at all. So far, so good. But as we unveil the meatier dribbles and they reveal a childhood marred by poverty of the abusive variety, one begins to wonder why Lucy's mother is there in the first place. Is this some twisted attempt at atonement? Delayed parenting? Are we being set up to muse upon the question of whether biology is destiny? If so, good luck determining whether Lucy is an apple from the tree, or a hybrid graft that blossomed elsewhere.

I suspect the book is really about home–is it where you were raised, or where you put down roots? Is it about what makes you feel connected, or what brings you meaning? Is it the antidote for loneliness? Or is it something you find within, not on a map? Once Lucy leaves the hospital, the next four decades elide in the novel in a Whitman's Sampler of things that shape (reshape?) Lucy. I liked Lucy much better toward the end, but I found Strout's elision unconvincing and thin. Several flawed mentors appear—Jeremy in the 1980s and writer Sara Payne at other junctures–but it's ambiguous what Lucy takes from either aside from a few aphorisms. Nor did Strout offer enough to convince me that Lucy was a person who made things happen rather than one who just learned to roll with life's punches. I found Lucy cloyingly passive in the first part of the book, annoyingly so on too many levels later in life, yet inexplicably resilient in other ways. As much as I wanted to feel sympathy for the bad hands she was dealt, too many of the lessons Lucy draws felt like solipsism rather that self-discovery.

 I generally deplore the label "chick-lit," but I haven't felt this much gender manipulation since I reached the midpoint of Eat Pay Love, hurled it across the room, and never opened it again. Okay—maybe there's a mother-daughter thing going on in Lucy Barton that I just don't get, but before you call out the feminist hounds, ask yourself how you'd react to a father-son book written in such a frilly way. I loved Strout's Olive Kitteridge because Olive was everything Lucy Barton isn't: outwardly smart, assertive, self-contained, and principled. She's cranky, but she also has a moral center that didn't revolve around herself. Lucy Barton? Well—at least her story was short enough that I actually finished it.     Rob Weir

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