My Name is Lucy Barton all takes place over just five days in a New York hospital where the narrator Lucy is staying after she develops an infection following a routine operation. Separated from her two young daughters and husband, Lucy is lonely, isolated and half falling in love with her kind doctor.
She rarely receives visitors until unexpectedly her estranged mother arrives to stay with her. While Lucy still hopes for the care and love she rarely felt as a child, her mother discusses the past, but rarely the truth of Lucy’s traumatic childhood. She recounts stories of friends or family members they once knew whose marriages have collapsed or who have made what she deems are questionable choices. The anecdotes are telling in what remains unsaid as much as what is said, and in fact this is a novel with the unspoken sitting at its core; the unspoken love between mother and daughter, and the unspoken shame of poverty and unacknowledged cruelty.
The conversations between mother and daughter and the memories of Lucy’s impoverished childhood are told in hindsight, switching between present, past and even future, which gives the narrative an often dreamy quality. The reader could be left pondering whether her mother is truly there at all. “But maybe that wasn’t what my mother said,” Lucy says at one point, highlighting the fluidity of memory, and the mixture of truth, fiction and repression inherent in recounting the past.
This, however, does not take away from the descriptions of Lucy’s harsh childhood or the strained relationship between mother and daughter, where emotions are not discussed even if loneliness is deeply
felt. “We were oddities, our family, even in that tiny rural town,” says Lucy early in the novel and later, “Loneliness was the first flavour I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden in the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.” It is in these simple, yet powerful, sentences where you find the poignancy of the novel but yet it never lapses into sentimentality. It rather shows us the complexities and power of memory and narrative.
My Name is Lucy Barton is a deeply affecting exploration of family, love, class and memory and also of writing itself. “Books made me feel less alone… I thought: I will write and people will not feel so alone,” Lucy says, and it is this desire for compassion and connection that makes the novel so quietly powerful.