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“My Name is Lucy Barton,” a new book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Elizabeth Strout, is a short novel about the past and how it shapes – and sometimes isolates – us.

In the 1980s, successful writer Lucy Barton spent nine weeks recovering from complications after an appendectomy. The hospital is in New York City – far away from tiny rural Amgash, Ill., where Lucy spent her childhood.

Her husband, William, must spend more time caring for their two young daughters than visiting Lucy, so her most frequent companion is her estranged mother. William has paid for the trip.

Lucy’s memories of her childhood in Amgash are not fond ones. The family lived in the garage next to her great uncle’s home. The times her father was employed – he was often fired for being disagreeable – he worked on farm machinery. Her mother took in sewing, but the family still struggled financially. Lucy and her two siblings often went to bed hungry and cold. Books were not just a luxury – they were out of reach.

Her mother was strict and often struck her small children. Lucy also remembers being locked into her father’s truck with
a brown snake.

At the hospital, Lucy and her mother talk about Lucy’s brother and sister and various friends she remembers. As they talk Lucy remembers other parts of her childhood, like how her mother would sometimes provide a hot water bottle to warm her at night. 

But things are still left unsaid. Lucy wants to tell her mother about her life with William and their two children. She wants to say two of her stories have been published. Most of all, she wants her mother to say, “I love you.” But her mother mostly just talks about things from the past, the way things were.

By the end of the novel, the reader learns about Lucy and her early relationship with her husband and their two daughters. And of her later life, the reader also earns that Lucy is a successful writer with good reviews, a comfortable income and TV appearances.

In this succinct story, the author deals with poverty and the shame it brings, class prejudice, the AIDS epidemic and the healing power of art. It is a tender and emotional story about a complicated mother-and-daughter relationship.