There is a quote from Elizabeth Strout on her website that describes how she never writes a story from beginning to end but instead collects scenes, writes them down on scraps of paper and throws them onto a big table, moves them around a bit, grouping the ones that are connected. Those she doesn’t like make their way to the floor and eventually into the trash. The survivors, she turns into her novels.
This style of writing was evident in her 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Olive Kitteridge, with its plot made up of thirteen connected stories centered on a dour, retired New England school teacher; but this haphazard yet effective method is even more evident in her recent novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton. Whereas Olive Kitteridge was made up of connected stories, the thread running through this novel could truly be considered scenes or literary vignettes, most no more than a few pages long, some as short as a paragraph or two.
Most of the novel is the title character recalling her lengthy stay in the hospital for a mysterious illness and her mother’s visit during which they tentatively nurse a strained relationship and achieve a kind of peace between them. Through Lucy’s thoughts, we learn she grew up very poor, raised by parents that at times could be cruel and at others subtly loving. She hints at some unnamed trauma, possibly at the hands of her father, but stoically refuses to divulge anything more than a suggestion that something in her childhood made her the way she is, a woman glad to be far away from her family and hometown.
The rest of the novel gives the reader glimpses into Lucy’s other relationships: with her husband and daughters; with Jeremy, her neighbor who recognizes her loneliness and becomes one of her only friends; with a fellow author who is her teacher and mentor; and even with her kindly doctor whom she says she loved.
Elizabeth Strout is a master at character development. With just a few words, and more through tone than action, she brings to life Lucy Barton, as well as the people that shape and bring meaning to Lucy’s melancholy life.
Katherine Arends is the Branch Manager at the Mebane Public Library and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.