Don’t make the mistake of blurring the line between fiction and truth, a novelist named Sarah Payne warns in Elizabeth Strout’s latest book, My Name Is Lucy Barton.
“It’s not my job,” Sarah says sharply, “to make readers know what’s a narrative voice and not the private view of the author.”
She’s speaking to her own fictional audience, and possibly to us, too. But who knows which voice reflects whose view in the deceptively simple but many-layered world of Lucy Barton? On the surface, the story is about a woman trying to recover from an illness and make peace with her mother. But, like all of Strout’s generous-hearted, deeply insightful novels, it is really about a great deal more: a terribly troubled past, a present that is slowly imploding, the yawning spaces between even the closest of people, our frequent inability to see what’s in front of us.
In an interview last week, Strout said she did not use her characters as pawns to make a greater point, nor as stand-ins for her own experiences, as readers often assume that writers do. Instead, they come to life mysteriously, organically, in stray scenes or bits of dialogue that present themselves and then, through some mysterious process that even she finds difficult to explain, eventually coalesce into a whole.
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“I work in all different ways, and never from beginning to end,” Strout explained. She sets out her various sketches and ideas for characters on scraps of paper and lets the scraps accrue wherever she is working. She discards some and keeps others, she said. “I dust them up, and they do their little things, and I keep what is most truthful about them.”
Strout, slender, blond and sunny, was in a diner near her apartment on the Upper East Side. It was her 60th birthday. She ordered a spartan breakfast — a single scrambled egg and a piece of white toast — and it seemed fitting, somehow in keeping with the book. Lucy Barton is written in a strikingly spare first-person voice, a contrast to the knowing, sophisticated omniscience of the narrators of Strout’s best-known novels, including Amy and Isabelle and Olive Kitteridge, the indelible portrait of a stubborn, difficult, complicated woman that won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2009.
It’s an experiment that works, with readers and reviewers marveling at how smoothly and urgently the voice draws them in. “I believed in the voice so completely I forgot I was reading a story,” the writer Ann Patchett said in an email. “I felt like I was being pulled aside by a friend who was saying, ‘Look, there’s something I have to tell you.’” In The Washington Post, Lily King wrote, “She is in supreme and magnificent command of this novel at all times.”
The book begins with Lucy explaining that the story she is about to tell happened “many years ago now,” when she became ill after a surgical mishap and spent a long stretch at a hospital in Manhattan. She receives an unexpected visit from her strange, awkward mother, who has never so much as been on an airplane before and has not spoken to Lucy for years. Immediately, the troubles of her childhood come flooding back: the poverty, shame and loneliness of the family’s existence in rural Illinois; her father’s abuse and his own terrible secrets; her mother’s inability, or unwillingness, to do anything about it.
Lucy and her mother are at once terribly distant and terribly close. Lucy longs for love; her mother can express it only obliquely. Class intrudes: Lucy has escaped her family’s marginal existence, while still feeling herself indelibly marked by it. Just as she can’t help being bitter and sad about her childhood, her mother cannot fathom the breadth and material abundance of her daughter’s new life.
The book reverberates with familiar Stroutian themes: the difficulties of making sense of the past and finding a place in a bewildering world; the unbearably close, unbearably painful relationships between mothers and daughters; how the tragedies of one generation are visited on the next.
But her protagonist is a novelist, and so is Sarah Payne, and that was a departure for their author, too. “I don’t think of myself as someone who writes about writers,” Strout said. “With all respect to writers.” But, she said, Sarah Payne “says the things that Lucy can’t say,” as well as provides an outside perspective on the story we are reading, which she discusses with Lucy.
It’s tempting to mine Strout’s own background for clues to her work, just the sort of blurring of lines that Sarah objects to in Lucy Barton. She had an isolated childhood in rural Maine and New Hampshire, with “a Puritan thing going on,” she said, and a sense that the world outside was scary and dangerous. There was no television, for instance; no dating; no parties; when she went to college, Strout wrote several years ago in an essay in The Washington Post, she had seen only two films in her life: 101 Dalmatians andThe Miracle Worker.
But there was no deprivation or cruelty, and there were a lot of books, and Strout’s imagination ran free. Both her parents were professors; her father died 17 years ago.
Strout divides her time between Brunswick, Maine, and New York. She has a 32-year-old daughter with her first husband. She met her second husband, the former attorney general of Maine, six years ago, when he turned up at a reading of hers at Symphony Space on the Upper West Side. “We waited a year to get married,” she said, “because we didn’t want to scare the children.”
Though her fictional mothers can be sharp-tongued and critical, Strout is generous about her own mother, 88, who bought notebooks for her as a child and encouraged her to write down what happened each day. “I’m sure my issues, or whatever they are, get worked out in my writing, but that just doesn’t interest me,” Strout said.
She went on: “I don’t ever feel I’ve written explicitly about her, but writers use all life experiences that come their way and mix them up and jumble them up. I could very well be doing that.”
In the story, Lucy becomes a novelist because, having been rescued from despair by books as a child, she wants to help alleviate others’ loneliness.
What about Strout?
”I write because I want the reader to read the book when they may need it,” Strout said in an email. “For example, when I first read Mrs. Dalloway, I thought: ‘Wow, I really need this book!’ So I always hope that a reader will find the book when they need it, even if they didn’t know they needed it.”