A routine appendix removal turns into a nine-week hospital stay for Lucy Barton. The doctors are not sure of the problem or cause of the protracted illness, but it gives Lucy time, aimless boring hours, to ponder on life and how much she misses her two daughters and husband and, with an old lady dying in a bed next to her, what would happen if she were to pass away. Her daughters are allowed to visit and every time they leave Lucy realizes just how lonely she is.
After three weeks in the hospital, one morning she is startled to wake and find her mother sitting at the foot of the bed. She had not seen her mother in years. For five nights her mother maintains a vigil at her bed. It is an enormous comfort for Lucy.
This is the novel. Lucy and her mother reminiscing, remembering anecdotes and memories from their past. This reminded me very much of Julian Barnes’ “The Sense of an Ending” and the reliability of our memories. The nuance of memory. How we all have different versions, different memories of the same event, and how even that memory may change with time.
Talking with her mother, forces Lucy to remember her childhood. Most of these memories are not happy ones, and Lucy realizes she has repressed many. Memories of extreme poverty, living in isolation, bullying and teasing. This upbringing seems to have given Lucy a sense of fragility, a brittleness that endears the reader to her. She lived her childhood with an expectation of ill treatment. We realize this whenever an act of kindness is bestowed on Lucy, she is ecstatically happy claiming to love the benefactor. She loves the doctor who is treating her, she loves the teacher who stood up for her. Kindness so rarely received seems wondrous.
Even though it is a short novel, the length is not the reason I finished it in one sitting. The reason is there is no boring point. Strout achieves this with short chapters, moving from one anecdote to the next quickly. She also writes great dialogue and delivers a relationship between Lucy and her mother that is a little mysterious. There is a palpable distance between them. Both women seem to hold their feelings back, keeping their emotions in check. I can’t recall the mother telling Lucy she loves her even once over the five nights, which keeps the reader guessing, pondering how both women have got to this point in their lives and what caused the estrangement. It’s obvious the mother loves Lucy but seems unable to tell her.
As the women talk, the door to Lucy’s life slowly starts to open, things start to fall into place. To say anymore would spoil the story as the enjoyment comes from slowly learning about her life from the talks with her mother, even though they do not directly discuss their own relationship.
A wonderful novel, and I can’t wait to read the next. Which hopefully will open the door on Lucy’s life even wider.
Elizabeth Strout is the author of several novels, including: Abide with Me, a national bestseller and BookSense pick, and Amy and Isabelle, which won the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction and the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize, and was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize in England. In 2009 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her book Olive Kitteridge. Her short stories have been published in a number of magazines, including The New Yorker. She teaches at the Master of Fine Arts program at Queens University of Charlotte.