I’ll be honest with you: I’d never heard of Elizabeth Strout until this Christmas (or was it the Christmas before?) when I was reading those pre-Xmas ‘authors recommend their books of the year’ articles, and this book got mentioned more than any other. So excuse ignorance, but it turns out that Elizabeth Strout was known by lots of other better-read people (oh yes, and won the Pulitzer Prize)…and having read this, I can see why. It was long listed for the 2016 Booker Prize, and having stalled reading Eileen (which was shortlisted, and I’m really struggling with), I can’t understand why this didn’t make the shortlist instead.
On the surface, it is a simple tale of a successful female author recounting how her mother came to visit her for five days when she was in hospital, and details the conversations they had during that time. These dialogues are interspersed by flashbacks and insights into the author (Lucy Barton, of course) and her wider life. And it is simply and sparely written, with short chapters that don’t outstay their welcome, and the feeling as you read that every single word has been chosen carefully, and every sentence pruned and honed with great care.
Beneath this simplicity, the recollections start to weave into a plot with depth, complexity and a dark edge: in the judgement of others, in barely referenced misdeeds, in the required ruthlessness that powers achievement. For a short, concise novel, there are many layers to peel back, and I felt at the end that I had read far more than the less than 200 pages in the book – a whole life is in these pages and, more specifically, a whole mother-daughter relationship is captured effortlessly in the short exchanges over just a few days.
What do you emerge with? That you are slightly wiser, wisdom rubbing off from Strout; that you have insight into the realities of families, insight gained from Strout’s writing; and, perhaps, a renewed clarity on things in your own life. Can’t ask for more than that, right?
BUY IT: My Name Is Lucy Barton