My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout*****

mynameislucybartonElizabeth Strout is the Pulitzer winning author of Olive Kitteridge and The Burgess Boys. Her new novel, My Name is Lucy Barton, may be her strongest work yet. I was lucky enough to get my DRC free of charge from Random House and Net Galley in exchange for this honest review. My thanks go to both of them.

Right about here is where I often start examining various aspects of a new novel: setting, plot, character development, as well as its political undertones, if there are any, and there usually are. But this book defies that sort of compartmentalization. If you want a label for it, we could call it a fictional memoir, but that doesn’t really do it justice either. In fact the entire work is a gloriously detailed character sketch. The setting exists only to develop the character. The dialogue exists for the same purpose. Lucy Barton is developed as much by what is not said—or maybe more so—as by what is. The plot, which also exists to develop character, is fluid, apart from the fact that Lucy’s story begins in the hospital following an appendectomy and she is out by the conclusion. But in between, we bounce around to various times in the character’s life; we share her dreams, her memories, her phobias…and because Strout is part author, part magician, we just can’t put it down.

Well, that’s not completely true. I was reading the first half at night, and suddenly realized that this was not a story I wanted impacting my own dreams, so I deliberately put it aside, choosing to reread a celebrity memoir before I turned off my light. I could fall asleep with Tom Petty in my head, but I would surely have nightmares with Lucy Barton.

Lucy is so pathetically lonely that she hangs on the kind words of the doctor in the hospital, almost as if he were a surrogate father. There has been so little affection in her life.

“Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.”

Strout uses repetition as figurative language in a way I haven’t seen done before. I’ve seen it used many times by other writers for emphasis; I’ve seen it used in a house-that-jack-built way by a couple of really strong writers to create suspense. Strout writes in the first person, as should be clear from the title, and in this case, repetition is used to build mood; in a number of places, I get the feeling that repetition is being used to make us believe something that may not be true. She protests too much; she is repeating herself either to convince us, or to convince herself. Hell, maybe it’s both. She repeats the same thing about a character from her past so often that I am half convinced the person she speaks of is imaginary; one has to wonder.

Barton’s back-story is one of stark, terrible white rural poverty. The protagonist and her entire family lived in a rented garage; one room, freezing cold. The children in the family were so badly dressed, so badly groomed that other children would not sit next to them on the school bus, and they were whispered about at school, “equally friendless and equally scorned”.

To some extent this could be called a mother-daughter novel, because almost all of the dialogue and much of the plot consists of the shared memories between Lucy and her mother, there in the hospital. As they echo one another, there is a cadence that shows that no matter what happened while Lucy was growing up, there is closeness between the two of them; Lucy would have more if it were offered. But the conversation is a kind of almost church-like call and response, a sort that is often seen among family members in smaller snippets. Much of the conversation is just neighbor gossip, but so much more is said in the way that Lucy and her mother speak to each other.

Barton is thrilled to have her mother there, nearly cannot believe she has actually come to sit with her, and as they converse, bits and pieces tumble out, and other bits are suppressed, but our protagonist thinks about them, and so we are in on all of it. And the sense of horror builds, builds, and builds some more. Brief snapshots of horrific events blink in and back out again, juxtaposed with that which is common and normal—the terror of being locked in the truck as child, and then we are talking about Lucy’s own children going to a play date, and about Lucy’s appendix. And by giving us the briefest glimpse of the horror, and letting us know in the author’s own brilliant way that this snapshot is not the half of it, there’s oh, so much more—the effect is tremendously chilling, and at the same time, oh so human.

And ultimately, whether her mother visits her or not; whether Lucy is financially well off or stone cold broke; whether she is married or single; Lucy is alone. Her solitude is positively visceral.

This novel won’t be available until January 2016, and that’s a shame, because it’s an amazing October read. But we will take a good case of the shivers along with stellar literary fiction when we can get it, and this novel comes highly recommended. Absolutely brilliant!

reposting All We Had: A Novel, by Annie Weatherwax***** Comes Out Tuesday!

All We HadThis quirky, funny, poignant story had me from hello. How often have you read a really strong mother-daughter novel? The legendary Marge Piercy brought some our way, and of course Amy Tan. Does Annie Weatherwax deserve a place in such auspicious company? I think she does.
Ruth and her mother have nobody and nothing, apart from each other and whatever they can throw in the car, and most of that stuff might not actually belong to them. They sleep together on whatever flat surface is available, sometimes a nasty mattress in an unfinished basement, but they call no place home.
Sometimes it seems more that Ruth is raising her mother than the other way ‘round, and so the fur flies when her mother suddenly decides to exert authority.
Does this sound like anyone you have known? It rings true to me. I’ve known people like this, both professionally and in my personal life. A friend in social work once told me that this “type” of kid keeps it together until she is in her mid-20s and then falls apart, because she didn’t get to scream and act out as an adolescent. At least in developed Western societies, the adolescent stage is necessary to development; if a kid can’t do it at the socially acceptable time of life that most people do, she’ll do it later.
And the fact that I found myself thinking such things, making such predictions for a fictional character, proves exactly how real Ruthie and her mother became to me as I gorged on the literary feast Weatherwax has cooked up. I was notified by Net Galley that since the book was coming out August 5, it would be nice to have my review run in early August, just before its release, and so I set the galley aside when I hit 60 percent. Later, I told myself. You can read it later.
I couldn’t stand it. I have over 100 unread books, most of them used, some of them galleys with a sell-by date on them, but I dove back in mid-July, like a dieter on a chocolate binge. I’ll run this review on my blog in July and then run it again in August, because All We Had is not just any story. It’s the story that couldn’t wait.
Rejoining mother and daughter, then, we head westward. Mom is determined that come what may, Ruthie will go to college, and she has her eye on the Ivy League schools. No matter how many boyfriends she takes up with, moves Ruthie and herself in with, and then books it (sometimes with the guy’s car and almost always with some of his money), their journey continues toward New England.
That is, until they come to Fat River, Ohio, a place that proves exceptional. It is here that Ruthie becomes fast friends with Peter Pam, the transvestite waitress at the local diner. People are different here in Fat River. Nobody has a lot of money, but there is such character here, a sense of community surpassing anything they had ever believed was possible for people like themselves, and the cynical, wise-cracking, foul-mouthed Ruthie and her mom find their defenses breaking down, a bit at a time, as the town takes its hold on their hearts.
What happens from there you will have to learn by yourself. I couldn’t tear myself away. I don’t know whether this book will be a best seller, but I do know that I would have been the poorer for not having read it.
Highly recommended!

All We Had: A Novel, by Annie Weatherwax*****

All We HadThis quirky, funny, poignant story had me from hello. How often have you read a really strong mother-daughter novel? The legendary Marge Piercy brought some our way, and of course Amy Tan. Does Annie Weatherwax deserve a place in such auspicious company? I think she does.
Ruth and her mother have nobody and nothing, apart from each other and whatever they can throw in the car, and most of that stuff might not actually belong to them. They sleep together on whatever flat surface is available, sometimes a nasty mattress in an unfinished basement, but they call no place home.
Sometimes it seems more that Ruth is raising her mother than the other way ‘round, and so the fur flies when her mother suddenly decides to exert authority.
Does this sound like anyone you have known? It rings true to me. I’ve known people like this, both professionally and in my personal life. A friend in social work once told me that this “type” of kid keeps it together until she is in her mid-20s and then falls apart, because she didn’t get to scream and act out as an adolescent. At least in developed Western societies, the adolescent stage is necessary to development; if a kid can’t do it at the socially acceptable time of life that most people do, she’ll do it later.
And the fact that I found myself thinking such things, making such predictions for a fictional character, proves exactly how real Ruthie and her mother became to me as I gorged on the literary feast Weatherwax has cooked up. I was notified by Net Galley that since the book was coming out August 5, it would be nice to have my review run in early August, just before its release, and so I set the galley aside when I hit 60 percent. Later, I told myself. You can read it later.
I couldn’t stand it. I have over 100 unread books, most of them used, some of them galleys with a sell-by date on them, but I dove back in mid-July, like a dieter on a chocolate binge. I’ll run this review on my blog in July and then run it again in August, because All We Had is not just any story. It’s the story that couldn’t wait.
Rejoining mother and daughter, then, we head westward. Mom is determined that come what may, Ruthie will go to college, and she has her eye on the Ivy League schools. No matter how many boyfriends she takes up with, moves Ruthie and herself in with, and then books it (sometimes with the guy’s car and almost always with some of his money), their journey continues toward New England.
That is, until they come to Fat River, Ohio, a place that proves exceptional. It is here that Ruthie becomes fast friends with Peter Pam, the transvestite waitress at the local diner. People are different here in Fat River. Nobody has a lot of money, but there is such character here, a sense of community surpassing anything they had ever believed was possible for people like themselves, and the cynical, wise-cracking, foul-mouthed Ruthie and her mom find their defenses breaking down, a bit at a time, as the town takes its hold on their hearts.
What happens from there you will have to learn by yourself. I couldn’t tear myself away. I don’t know whether this book will be a best seller, but I do know that I would have been the poorer for not having read it.
Highly recommended!