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You Must Read This: Aingeala Flannery on My Name is Lucy Barton, a warm and poignant novel

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Aingeala Flannery, author of The Amusements

Aingeala Flannery, author of The Amusements

Aingeala Flannery, author of The Amusements

Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton was published in 2016, and it’s the book I give to friends who say they love reading but can’t seem to finish a book. It’s a short novel told from the point of view of the eponymous heroine; a writer living in New York, remembering the 1980s when she was hospitalised with appendicitis and ended up spending nine weeks in isolation with a mysterious illness. It’s the height of the Aids epidemic in New York and visits from her husband and young daughters are curtailed. Lucy is alone until her mother, from whom she’s been estranged for years, shows up and keeps vigil by her bedside for five days and nights.

The sudden appearance of her mother triggers in Lucy memories of her ‘dirt poor’ childhood in Amgash, Illinois, where by anyone’s standards the family were oddities — and outcasts. Without an ounce of self-pity, Lucy recalls how they lived in a one-room garage, with no plumbing and no privacy, how they were punished and beaten, deprived of food, love and creative stimulation. Lucy, a bright and studious child, escapes Amgash on a scholarship and breaks ties with her family. She builds a new life, but carries the trauma of childhood with her. Despite her success as a writer, the love she finds with her husband William and her daughters, she is plagued by loneliness and self-doubt.

Lucy and her mother never confront the past directly; secrets sit like a herd of elephants in the hospital room. Instead, they gossip about people Lucy knew in Amgash, the ones who got on and the ones who fell from grace: the ‘Pretty Nicely Girls’ and poor Marilyn who ‘married that Charlie Macauley from Carlisle’. Mother and daughter share a bond; an outlook and a wit that is familiar and soothing to Lucy. “Oh, I was happy speaking with my mother this way!” The book is full of warmth and hope and humour. Yet we know that reconciliation is fleeting, her mother cannot give her the love she craves and it’s a disappointment Lucy has to live with. “I feel that people may not understand that my mother could never say the words ‘I love you’… It was all right.”

My Name is Lucy Barton leaves you wanting more and mercifully there is more. Strout published a collection called Anything is Possible in 2018, telling the stories of the people Lucy and her mother gossiped about. In 2021, another ‘Lucy’ book arrived. Oh, William!, about her relationship with her husband. This year, she’ll publish Lucy by the Sea. I doubt I’ll ever tire of Lucy Barton. Most first-person narrators are unreliable, but not Lucy. I think her words ring true because she’s so full of self-doubt.

‘The Amusements’ by Aingeala Flannery is out now from Penguin Sandycove

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