Elizabeth Strout * Random House * January 12, 2016 * 208 Pages
Lucy Barton is looking back, processing various events from her life–most of them fairly awful. That time when her mom visited her in the hospital when she was so sick. That time her dad humiliated her brother, calling him a fucking faggot in front of everyone after he was caught trying on Mom’s high heels. That time her parents locked her in the truck with a snake. All that time when she and her family lived in her uncle’s cold, cold garage.
Lucy is soft, sweet, likable, kind–that much is clear right away. She’s wounded, and, despite the fact that she’s older, married with kids, and enjoying moderate success as a writer, she’s still walking around shell-shocked by childhood traumas. I kept picturing Lucy as an injured kitten mewing helplessly in the street, and I wanted to take care of her. From the first few pages, I readied myself to settle in and hear it all. Tell me everything, Lucy. Mew away.
And Lucy has some interesting things to say, especially about dysfunctional and abusive families–things I understand and identify with, truthfully. She’s insightful and honest, and it’s obvious that Lucy wants to be strong. She wants to be OKAY. But she’s also so desperate to be loved, to be seen–especially by her mother–that sometimes she keeps the truth tucked neatly away. In fact, she’d rather forgive her mom everything than acknowledge that her mom is capable of so much cruelty. (The moments when Lucy essentially begs for her mother’s paltry scraps of affection are tough to read.)
Early on, Lucy describes how confused she is about her own childhood, and her observation on the subject pretty much sets the tone for the whole book:
There are times now, and my life has changed so completely, that I think back on the early years and I find myself thinking: It was not that bad. Perhaps it was not. But there are times, too–unexpected–when walking down a sunny sidewalk, or watching the top of a tree bend in the wind, or seeing a November sky close down over the East River, I am suddenly filled with the knowledge of darkness so deep that a sound might escape from my mouth, and I will step into the nearest clothing store and talk with a stranger about the shape of sweaters newly arrived. This must be the way most of us maneuver through the world, half knowing, half not, visited by memories that can’t possibly be true. But when I see others walking with confidence down the sidewalk, as though they are free completely from terror, I realize I don’t know how others are. So much of life seems speculation.
I remember the first time I told someone that my mom hit us with a wooden spoon when we did something wrong (mostly on our lower halves, but, then again, often not), and that person responded with genuine horror and repulsion. I remember thinking, “Oh, maybe it really was bad.” Because when it’s happening, it doesn’t feel good, sure, but it still feels “normal.” As a child, I just assumed I was bad enough to earn the punishment and too weak to “take it” emotionally afterward. It was years before I realized that things could have gone a different way.
My point being that I get it. I get why Lucy is confused. I get the need to look back and hash it all out, but I also understand why it isn’t always easy to wrap your mind around the things that have happened. Of course I wanted Lucy to stop being so obviously needy with her mom. I wanted her to accept that her mom was incapable of meeting her (completely reasonable) needs. But I understood why Lucy couldn’t. Abuse is a mindfuck, especially in childhood. When you love someone, you want to believe that person loves you back. It’s just about the hardest thing in the world to admit when s/he doesn’t–and, WORSE, that it isn’t even your fault. Because if it’s not your fault, if you can’t make yourself better and EARN that love, well, then you really have no control anymore; there is no making it better, because, finally, it isn’t about you.
At any rate, I really enjoyed reading this book. It was a short read but an absolutely lovely one. Kudos to Strout for creating another wonderful and memorable character in Lucy Barton.