“My Name is Lucy Barton” is a deceptively simple book that on first blush might seem to be about a relationship between a daughter and mother. Lucy is telling her story looking back over a nine-week period she spent in the hospital recovering from complications after removal of her appendix. While she is recovering, her estranged mother comes to visit and stays with her in the hospital for almost a week. During that time they remember people and events in their lives and Lucy reflects on her past, her mind and her heart.
Lucy is a successful writer living in New York City. We learn that she grew up extremely poor in rural Illinois and until she was 11 years old she lived in a garage with her parents, her brother and her sister. Prior to her mother’s visit to the hospital, Lucy had not seen her mother for years. During their week long conversations, her mother reminds Lucy of old friends and acquaintances and brings her up to date on the directions their lives have taken. But when it comes to discussing some of the things that Lucy thinks of as significant in her own life, her mother is unresponsive. For instance, Lucy remembers the terror she felt when, as a child, she was locked in her father’s truck as punishment. When she tells her mother that she remembers her father’s truck, her mother says “‘The truck?’ My mother’s voice sounded surprised. ‘I don’t know anything about a truck.'” And when Lucy tries to tell her mother about her success as a writer, her mother “looked at me quizzically, as if I had said I had grown extra toes, then she looked out the window and said nothing.”
Remarkably, Lucy only sees her mother one more time before her mother’s death, nine years after Lucy is released from the hospital. “Why didn’t I go there to visit her?…I think–to say it simply–it was easier not to go.” As much as Lucy resented her family for not showing interest in her, ultimately, Lucy felt that her connection to them was a burden and some of the memories best left alone.
While the book addresses the relationship between mother, daughter and family, it focuses on how little we know each other, how much we want to be known and how difficult it is to know oneself. That desire to be known, for Lucy, started with her mother. “I wanted my mother to ask about my life. I wanted to tell her about the life I was living now.” But as Lucy and her mother reminisce, she realizes that this desire to be known and to be accepted is a focal point of life and relationships. Lucy recalls a story her mother tells about a woman named Katie Nicely, who spent time with Lucy’s mother although their circumstances were quite different. Lucy’s mother observes that “I always thought she liked my circumstances being so much lower than her own. She couldn’t envy anything about me.”
This desire to be known expresses itself in Lucy’s musings about her doctor, who came to see her every day for nine weeks (except Father’s Day) and charged her for only five hospital visits, and in her musings about people who had come and gone throughout her life. And through a recurring personality in the book, Sarah Payne, an introverted author and teacher, Lucy learns to use writing as a way to make sense of the lack of clarity in life. Lucy’s recurring reminiscences of Sarah Payne instruct us about that lack of clarity and how best to address it. Such instruction is best summed up by Lucy when she recalls a particular lesson. “Sarah Payne, the day she told us to go to the page without judgment, reminded us that we never know, and never would know, what it would be like to understand another person fully. It seems a simple thought, but as I get older I see more and more that she had to tell us that.”
My Name is Lucy Barton is a lovely, thoughtful book, with a variety of life lessons. It is scheduled to be released in January of 2016 and can be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11177267__Smy%20name%20is%20lucy%20barton__Orightresult__U__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold.