Ruthlessness. Elizabeth Strout, My Name is Lucy Barton

Elizabeth Strout, My Name is Lucy Barton. Penguin paperback, 2016. First published in the USA 2016.

Is the visit of her mother at the hospital overlooking the Chrysler building in NYC, a woman from whom she’d been estranged for so many years, who beat and traumatised her as a child, partly to mitigate (in Lucy’s eyes) the more brutal and disturbed behaviour of her war-damaged husband, Lucy’s father? Is her visit a real event, or does Lucy imagine or hallucinate it? She’s in hospital for a serious somatic condition (or is it?) that requires nine weeks of treatment, but we never learn exactly what it is that ails her. Is her illness in her head? Is she really ill, or even in hospital? All this happened back in the seventies.

After all, the warping events that bent her out of shape as a child make me feel that the unexpected appearance of her mother after such a long separation, and who colluded in her fierce, abusive upbringing, is more of a deus (dea?) ex machina than a realistic event.

This is a mother who did nothing to prevent her PTSD-suffering husband from cruel treatment of his children, such as shutting up Lucy, when she was a little girl, in the cab of his truck when they were both out at work all day. On one occasion a snake entered the cab and so freaked her out she can’t even bear to hear the word ‘snake’ as an adult. He publicly humiliated her little brother when he innocently dressed like a girl; now he seems even more traumatised than Lucy.

Strout Lucy B coverI found the first half of this novel deeply affecting. Then it began to pall a little after such a dazzling start. The fragmentary structure – each chapter is very short, sometimes just a paragraph, and written in lucid, simple prose – perfectly conveys the mosaic of mostly bitter memories the narrator Lucy pieces together as her drug-dumbed mind tries to cope with this unprecedented solicitude from a mother she loves dearly, but who showed little in return when she was little, and is still incapable of saying now that she loves her daughter.

The mother is a damaged Madonna, a vampire nurse, who seems to need contrition and her daughter’s nurture as Lucy needs a gesture or expression of love and kindness from her – which is not forthcoming.

The kids when growing up were so poor they felt deeply the insults and mockery of their peers at school, who sneered at their ragged clothes and unkempt, filthy appearance, their uncouth manners.

If her mother’s sequence of stories is to be believed, nearly all of Lucy’s former female acquaintances married badly and are now divorced or worse. Has she embroidered the truth in order to deflect Lucy’s attention from her own neglect, or to exculpate herself?

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.

Lucy still meets people who try to denigrate her, as they did when she was a child when she was dirt poor, living in her uncle’s garage:

It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people…Whatever we call it, I think it’s the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down.

The deceptive simplicity of style here and through the novel, the colloquial, unadorned register, are used to express some profound and gnomic insights into the human condition – and in particular into the tribulations and recriminations of the mother-daughter relation.

Lucy found refuge in reading, she tells us, and then in writing. She meets a writer whose work she’d admired, and feels inspired to overcome her lack of self-confidence and do her own writing. These character-assassination stories her mother tells her, Lucy’s own experience in the hospital: all this becomes the novel we’re reading. She shares what’s become her artistic mantra:

I like writers who try to tell you something truthful.

Telling the truth: that’s what she’s trying to do here. In a work of fiction.

That’s partly where I start to part company with this novel: it’s too self-referential, like a creative writing exercise. ‘I had to become ruthless to be a writer,’ she says a friend told her. Even that inspirational writer who set her off on the road to becoming one herself had her struggles:

I think I know how she spoke of the fact that we all have only one story, and I think I don’t know what her story was or is. I like the books she wrote. But I can’t stop the sense that she stays away from something.

Staying away from something, thinking she knows or doesn’t know something: such simple language, such complex concepts – like the need for ruthlessness in a writer. So she’s got herself out of her first, unsuccessful marriage to

hurl onward through life, blind as a bat, but on I go! This is the ruthlessness, I think./My mother told me in hospital that day that I was not like my brother and sister: “Look at your life right now. You just went ahead and …did it.” Perhaps she meant that I was already ruthless. Perhaps she meant that, but I don’t know what my mother meant.

Refreshing to find a narrative voice that doesn’t profess to know everything. Maybe she isn’t yet ruthless. There’s pity for this cruel mother, for one.

Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteredge, about which I wrote last December, I found a more fully realised and satisfying novel.

In therapy they go straight after the mother. Elizabeth Strout, ‘Olive Kitteridge’

 

Photo: By Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44665615

With Christmas visits and trips about to happen this will be my last post probably this year. I’d like to write more attentively about Elizabeth Strout’s 2008 novel Olive Kitteredge, Pulitzer Prize winner in 2009, but as time is pressing this will be an impressionistic piece.

Olive Kitteridge cover

My Scribner’s paperback edition, published 2016, still with the charity shop price tag stuck indelibly on the front

It’s a fragmentary novel in the form of thirteen linked short stories, each self-contained, usually about a different set of characters in the coastal town of Crosby, Maine, but Olive and her pharmacist husband Henry appear in all of them, sometimes as peripheral characters, in others their story – their fitful, troubled relationship with each other and their son Christopher – develops.

Olive is a difficult, irascible, moody woman, but gifted with surprising empathy. The opening story, ‘Pharmacy’, is a microcosm of the whole novel. It begins with the Kitteredges in their prime, some time in the sixties when ‘the hippie business was beginning’, and ends near the present day when Henry has retired. Henry at the story’s start employs a new assistant, Denise, in his pharmacy, and falls passionately, platonically in love with her. Olive, meanwhile, is subject to fits of emotional ‘darkness’ that distances her husband and surly teenage son. We learn that Henry finds his workplace a safe haven, like ‘a healthy, autonomic nervous system, in a workable, quiet state’, away from ‘any unpleasantness that may have occurred back in his home, any uneasiness at the way his wife often left their bed to wander through their house in the night’s dark hours’. Olive is clearly deeply troubled.

Henry is a long-suffering character it’s easy to warm to, with his perennially ‘cheerful’ nature, and his desire to make everyone happy – even his spiteful wife. Adolescent Christopher has some of his mother’s genes, for he snarls ‘angrily’ at his father near the story’s end:

“Why do you need everyone married?…Why can’t you just leave people alone?” He doesn’t want people alone.

The free indirect style throughout unobtrusively allows us into the main characters’ minds, as here with Henry’s. He can’t bear to see Denise or anyone else ‘helpless’; he wants to help. He needs help – and Olive provides it beautifully but, tragically, too late for him.

The story reveals that Olive’s waspish mouth and misanthropic impatience with people is partly the result of her own unrequited passion for a fellow teacher at her school. The couple never speak about their sorrows or pain, for in their own way they love and need each other. Christopher’s angst, as the other stories unfold, is also explained by his frustration with his mother and her stifling love.

I’d like to say much more about the other stories – maybe I’ll return to them in the new year. All I have time for here, then, is this: a unifying motif or theme is the damaging effect that mothers have on their children. In ‘Pharmacy’ we learn that Henry’s mother had two ‘nervous breakdowns’ and had otherwise cared for him ‘with stridency’ – a word that suits Olive’s maternal style; Henry has to restrain her from giving Christopher too hard a time, and at one point she admits she used to hit him – not smack, hit. Yet her love for her only son almost overwhelms her, and she’s devastated when he moves away from New England with his first wife to live in California; it’s pretty obvious that Olive’s antipathy towards her daughter-in-law is reciprocated, and that Suzanne insisted on leaving. Christopher would not have resisted; when they divorce, he stays out west, and rarely even visits his parents. Tough love hasn’t worked for him.

When pharmacy assistant Denise’s husband dies, Henry cares tenderly for her. Olive is scathing in her dismissal of ‘mousy’ Denise – largely because she’s aware that her transparent husband has feelings for her. Olive acidly observes that at first she couldn’t see why Denise’s husband (also Henry) had married her, until she saw young Henry’s mother at his funeral.

“…he married his mother. Men do.” After a pause. “Except for you.”

It’s typical of the subtlety and psychological insight into her complex characters that Elizabeth Strout reveals in this way how the dynamics of relationships both reveal and conceal truths. Olive is no doubt right about Denise, her husband and his mother; but does she realise that her Henry, too, has married a neurotic, volatile, potentially suicidal woman like his mother? Such self-awareness eludes her, or she swerves away from it, despite her frequent, surprisingly warm empathy for and insight into other people.

In ‘Security’, late in the novel, Olive visits Christopher and his second wife, Ann, in New York City, where they’d followed their therapist (he’d needed one after living first with Olive, then with Suzanne; he’d married his mother that time; Ann is the opposite: vapid, colourless, but damaged in her own way; he’d learned his lesson). The visit is a disaster. Olive detests Ann, and says on the phone to Henry:

“They’re ok, but she’s dumb, just like I thought. They’re in therapy. She hesitated, looked around. “You’re not to worry about that, Henry. In therapy they go straight after the mother. You come out smelling like a rose, I’m sure.”

As before, she shows a startling flash of insight here, while at the same time seeming in denial about the devastating impact she’d had on both her son and her husband. The rueful self-deprecation morphs in typical Olive fashion into an attack on Henry’s benign nature, the opposite of hers.

This quiet, becalmed coastal town of Crosby, Maine (Strout herself was born and raised in Portland, Maine) is the kind that Stephen King might set up for horrific, supernatural mayhem to unleash itself on. Elizabeth Strout prefers a quieter, more insidious kind of hell – the hell of a woman’s seeing her husband suffer a stroke, be emptied of his humanity, and ultimately die. A mother’s realising that the son she adores has been so alienated and intimidated by her acerbity that he dislikes her.

There are many other broken, suffering characters in this novel, and suicide is often not far from their minds, but it usually manages to avoid becoming depressing. There is redemption for most of them, often in surprising places and people. In ‘Incoming Tide’, for example, Olive manages to quell a former student’s suicidal thoughts by revealing with sympathy that she knew his mother killed herself, as her own father did. When he rescues a former classmate of his from drowning in the ocean, we realise she had probably jumped, for she too had tragedy in her life: she’d been unable to become a mother. Their salvation is mutual, reciprocal, and the prose that reveals all this is meticulous and satisfyingly understated.

I’ve only scratched the surface of this multi-faceted, carefully crafted novel. I recommend it – but it’s a bumpy ride.