"Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress," goes the first line of Middlemarch. Simplicity is a brave choice in a novel as well as in a dress: it means there are no forgiving distractions and no flattering cuts. In My Name is Lucy Barton, there are no plot twists to distract or verbal acrobatics to charm: the story must rest instead on its bare emotional truth. The result is a novel of gorgeous simplicity and restraint.
An infection confines Lucy Barton to a hospital bed for nine weeks. In this motionless and melancholy state, she is visited by her mother, whom Lucy has not seen for years. The reasons for this alienation unspool slowly: a lonely childhood full of silences, poverty, and abuse. And yet, in spite of everything, her mother loves her. She can't say the words "I love you," but she sits in quiet watchfulness all night, and tells her stories and small town gossip all day.
Our inner lives are unaccountable in so many ways, and that's why fiction that follows logical rules about who should feel what and when rarely feels real. Birthdays, funerals, graduations, other things that everyone tells you are the moments for feelings never really seem to be — instead, the heart is moved by a tiny kindness, a smell, a breeze, an impulse.
Strout is a master of small, telling, interpersonal moments: Lucy is seeing an older artist who asks her what her family ate growing up. " 'We had baked beans a lot.' And he said, 'What did you do after that, all hang around and fart?' Then I understood I would never marry him. It's funny how one thing can make you realize something like that. One can be ready to give up the children one always wanted, one can be ready to withstand remarks about one's past, or one's clothes, but then — a tiny remark and the soul deflates and says: Oh."
People are endlessly inventive when it comes to cruelty. Sometimes it's a monumental betrayal, but more often it's a half-heard put-down at the dinner table, or a flick of the eyes. Strout describes the uniquely sharp cuts families can inflict on each other: "And then plucking something from her lap, squinting, my mother added in a lower voice: 'She was an only child, I think that had something to do with it, how self-centered they can be.' I felt the cold-hot shock that came from being struck without warning; my husband was an only child."
But Strout hints at cruelty on the monumental scale as well. Barton describes a sculpture in the Met of Ugolino and his sons: a starving man imprisoned with his children, who were so desperate to end his pain that "[t]hey will allow him — oh, happily, happily — to eat them." We aren't told exactly what Lucy's father did to them, but you understand that they, too, must have offered themselves in some way to end their father's suffering, they too must have been willing to do anything to end his pain. "And I thought, so that guy knew," Lucy says. "Meaning the sculptor. He knew."
The book is structured as a novel within a novel. Barton is a writer, and she takes the chapters describing the hospital to a writing workshop years later, with a professor she'd previously met and admired: "I like writers who try to tell you something truthful," she says. Some novels, regardless of their relationship to actual events, feel true. It's like something gentle has taken you to one side, where things you already half-knew but couldn't articulate are finally explained to you. You feel relief, you feel understood, you feel realer, even. You think, that's it. That's what life is like. My Name is Lucy Barton renders familiar universal tensions — family, sickness, money — quietly and aptly. It's a true novel.