Random House ($26)
by Emily Myers
For better or for worse, every person is connected to a family. This family may come in many forms and levels of functionality, but, as Elizabeth Strout writes, “No one in this world comes from nothing.” We each have people. We each have a story. That’s what Strout’s character, Lucy Barton, discovers through her memoirist writing and reflections on life.
Lucy Barton is a wife and mother of two young girls. A strange infection sidelines her in the hospital for weeks under the care of a kind doctor. Unexpectedly, Lucy’s mother, whom she has not seen in several years, shows up by her hospital bed one morning. The surprising nature of the visit leads to conversations that are awkward and hurtful, but also redemptive and uplifting. As Lucy reflects on this time in the hospital with her mother, she leaves anecdotal hints about her childhood experiences, always doused in grace and generosity for the people and places in her memory.
Because of her troubling past, Lucy writes about her attempts to differentiate herself from her family. Yet Lucy finds within her own marriage, her profession as a writer, and her role as a mother that she nonetheless extends the experiences of her childhood into her adult life. She later mournfully realizes, “this is my story . . . yet it is the story of many.” And her story is inextricably linked to the story of her family, the stories of each person in her life.
Strout structures this book in a modern way, taking advantage of our technology-induced shrinking attention spans: Each short chapter captures a moment in time and thought for Lucy. Eventually threads from each chapter are woven together into multi-colored fragments which, if thoughtfully considered, become an intricate tapestry. And isn’t that how life is—coming at us in bite-sized moments and weaving a complicated, and often beautiful, three-dimensional history? As Lucy says, “I saw then too how our roots were twisted so tenaciously around one another’s hearts. My husband said, ‘But you didn’t even like them.’ And I felt especially frightened after that.”
Themes of family and memory, poverty and superiority, loneliness and identity provide a down-to-earth reflection on real life grace, searching, and the irreversibility of life. Lucy’s daughter says to her, “Mom, when you write a novel you get to rewrite it, but when you live with someone for twenty years, that is the novel, and you can never write that novel with anyone again!” Each day we write our own novels, we tell our own stories. “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” according to essayist Annie Dillard. And whom we spend our days with also speaks to how our lives are.
This is a careful story, a subtle story, and a meditative story. As a novel written in memoir style, it allows us to experience Lucy’s self-interrogation, including desires to remember and speak of incidents and people charitably. “This is a story about a mother who loves her daughter. Imperfectly. Because we all love imperfectly.”