My Name is Lucy Barton – Elizabeth Strout

[I decided to read this novel in two halves. When I wrote about the first half, I didn’t know what was coming in the second.]

17 November 2017
First half
‘My Name is Lucy Barton,’ says – nobody in this short novel. It’s far too assertive. We don’t know for certain that it’s Lucy who is actually narrating until her mother calls her by her name, once, when she arrives to see her after a gap of something like ten years. From then on she always uses a nickname, Wizzle. We never get to know her mother’s name, or her father’s, but most other people’s we do. Her siblings, her husband, her own children… they all have names, as do the girls the family used to know who have life-stories that Lucy’s mother likes to tell. Or re-tell. But the doctor Lucy likes, the teacher who was kind to her, the artist lover at university who wasn’t – none of these get names. The only person important enough for that honour is an author Lucy meets, and who gives her the idea of becoming a real writer. What is it about names in this book? And I’m still wondering about the untypical sense of pride we can hear in that title.

The half-way point seems like a good place to pause. We know that this book is not the first thing written by the narrator, and it’s becoming clear that she, or Elizabeth Strout, is interested in how stories are told. Or not told. At the point I’ve stopped reading, on page 99 of a 190-odd-page novel, we get this: ‘And so I began to record this story on that night. Parts of it. / I began to try.’  This is why it feels like a good place to take stock. So far, the narrator has only offered us at intervals the details of how miserable her childhood was. Brought up in a garage with only the most makeshift of living arrangements. Sent to school unwashed. Bullied for dressing weird and smelling bad…. We’re beginning to understand why she used to imagine going up to strangers to ask them to take her away and, if we are ever going to get to find out the worst of it, it looks as though it’s going to take the whole novel.

So far, one of the worst things we’ve heard is that before she was five years old her parents used to lock her in their farm-truck all day while her sister and brother were at school. She spent a lot of time screaming – and later, we hear how the presence of a snake in the cab on one of the days has left her with such a phobia she can’t bear even to hear the word. The overlapping stories move forward at their own pace, and… it’s masterful. Elizabeth Strout presents a character, a writer, whose accidental-seeming narrative shows, in fact, how she has attempted to come to terms with the terrible truth of her life. She appears to have been brought up by parents who didn’t know how to love.

As Lucy’s story unfolds, I’m left gasping at the way Elizabeth Strout has her do it this way. The framing time-line takes place mainly over the five days during which her mother sat at her bedside in a Manhattan hospital in the 1980s. (We’re on the third day so far.) Lucy has married and moved away by then, and has two small daughters. And we learn as much from the often awkward exchanges between her and the mother she hadn’t spoken to for years as we do from the various back-stories. We know she will survive this mystery illness – but also that she will remember these five days for the rest of her life. She is writing this years later.

[Pause]

I just re-read it from the beginning. Various things that had left rather generalised impressions are in fact very carefully paced so, for instance, the idea we have that Lucy’s mother never had a kind word for her as a child is built up of about half-a-dozen separate moments. She doesn’t keep Lucy or her sister clean, so they are bullied at school because they ‘smell funny.’ Lucy’s realisation at college that she has no knowledge of any popular culture is down to the fact that there was none in her childhood – not only no TV, but no films, no songs and, worst of all, no chat. It clearly didn’t occur to her mother that those daily lock-ins in the truck (something she has forgotten all about when she visits Lucy in hospital all those years later) would deprive her growing daughter not only of company but of any sense of her place in the world. Later, in a remark that Lucy makes no comment about, her mother rebukes her for a minor social blunder by asking sarcastically ‘Who brought you up?’ And puberty? Her mother’s way of acknowledging it was to remark that her new breasts made her look like one of the neighbour’s cows.

And so on. The opening chapter introduces us to the little hospital room that is the highly circumscribed setting for the framing chapters. But we are told in the second sentence that there is an extraordinary view of the Chrysler Building visible from the bed, and it becomes a constant presence. The narrator often remarks on it as it catches the sun or shines like a beacon at night, so it becomes a kind a leitmotif, perhaps a vision of hope. Whatever, the next chapter is a flashback to childhood, and this becomes the pattern. Any hospital chapter is followed by one or two from Lucy’s life – as a child, studious adolescent, easily preyed-upon college student, wife and mother – but we never forget she is the daughter of this woman in the room, and of the father who seems to have nothing to give her.

The different viewpoints we get from the various time-lines build up a complex picture of Lucy’s mother, and one that is surprisingly sympathetic. She had no idea of how to be a mother to her young children and, in the hospital time-line, there are still massive gaps in her understanding. But – and this is what really makes it masterful – once she has been sent the money for a flight by the son-in-law she rejected from the start, some instinct she doesn’t seem to know exists seems to have kicked in. She does what anyone in the world would love their mother to do: she sits by the bed, refusing her own cot, attempts to make small-talk in spite of her pitiful narrow-mindedness, and – and what? Slowly, slowly, by simply being there – and once, in the middle of the night, by finding her way through the maze-like hospital to where Lucy is having an emergency scan – she does more than her daughter would ever have dreamed of. In the third hospital chapter there is a conversation in which, as usual, she dissects other families’ lives in a way she never does to her own. She has had nothing positive to say about a girl from the neighbourhood, and has been adding details to what she said in the first chapter about how she came to ‘a bad end.’ But this chapter ends with these lines from Lucy: ‘I was so happy! Oh, I was so happy speaking to my mother this way!’

ore extrovert novels than this one proclaim their theme of redemption and atonement with a kind of pride. This one doesn’t proclaim anything – a lot of it is to do with how nothing important is ever said out loud – and it’s only just now that I’m beginning to see it in these terms at all. We hear about one routine horror after another that Lucy suffered as a child – taking great care as a narrator, she keeps feeding us the information this way – and we hear for ourselves the dreadfully narrow confines of her mother’s world-view…. But, somewhere in there, there’s a kind of love. And it’s mutual. I’m not predicting any kind of easy pay-off, but that line of Lucy’s about how happy she is isn’t the last time she says such a thing. After a conversation in which her mother has been appallingly insensitive about Lucy’s snake phobia – we haven’t heard the back-story about the snake in the truck yet – she tells us, ‘I thought: All I want is this.’

Her mother has other limitations. If she cared about herself, it would seem egotistical, but she seems simply to accept whatever gets her through the day. Not having accepted a lift from the airport from Lucy’s husband, she had to make her own way. Lucy, the concerned daughter, asked her how she managed. ‘I have a tongue in my head and I used it.’ When she finds her way through the night hospital – ‘I have a tongue in my head and I used it.’ This is the extent of human interaction for her. Not for her the kindness of strangers, but using whatever is to hand to get the job done. There is almost nothing, and nobody, beyond her own immediate concerns, and we catch a glimpse of this when Lucy comes home from school one day. They have a substitute teacher she tells us she loves for his considerateness – because, of all the teachers she has ever had, only he has dealt with the routine bullying he sees her suffering. (I’ll come back to that love she speaks of so readily.) He has been telling them about the terrible way the white men treated the ‘Indians’ in the past and, excited by this new knowledge – she always is, having been turned long ago into a secret after-school reader when avoiding going back to her cold house – she tells her mother about it, ‘slowly and with some awe.’ Her mother’s response is, ‘I don’t give a damn about what we did to the Indians.’

And there are the other family members. There is a story about why her father seems to be so emotionally closed-up. When Lucy takes her half-German fiancé to meet them, he has to leave the room. Her mother upbraids her. Doesn’t she know her father had a terrible experience in Germany? Doesn’t she know he can’t be in the same room as a German? No, Lucy didn’t know. How could she when her father never, ever, speaks about the War? Her mother reads her a lecture on how some men talk about it, and others don’t. He doesn’t, that’s all. Except… it isn’t all, Later, Lucy’s older brother tells her a different story. Her father, surprised by two young Germans during the war, had shot them both in the back in cold blood. One of them, at least, was very young – and I think it’s her brother who suggests that seeing her fiancé brought it all back. Which might or might not be true. How could we know?

This same brother still lives at home in his mid-30s and, according to their mother, sleeps with animals destined for slaughter next day. He doesn’t work, spending his time reading a children’s book series that sounds like The Little House on the Prairie. (Lucy’s favourite at elementary school was one with a girl called Tilly who was bullied in a similar way to her sister and herself. Lucy’s own daughter, years later, calls it ‘dumb’ – and loves The Little House on the Prairie.) Lucy’s older sister, Vicky, was always far more resentful than she was of being treated as a poverty-stricken outsider, and there was little affection between them. I forget where she is now, but I doubt it’s a good place.

So there’s that whole other thread of the stories people tell – at every level, it seems. Her mother’s stories of neighbours and their daughters are as judgmental and as dismissive as of everything else she talks about. And she hasn’t mentioned her husband once, except when reminded of the truck, for the three days she’s been there so far. Lucy is sure he’s still alive, still living with her mother, but – nothing. I mentioned that by this time Lucy herself has written other things, two short stories she speaks of dismissively if they are referred to, published in literary magazines. And, long after the time in the hospital, she accidentally meets a published author in a clothes-shop, who is kind and helpful to her – and who belittles her own writing in exactly the same way. It’s at a literary event featuring this author, Sarah Payne, that gives Lucy the impetus to write….

In fact, the chapter I’ve just finished re-reading, the one that ends with Lucy’s typically tentative description of how she came to write her story – ‘Parts of it / I began to try’ – hinges on things said by Sarah Payne. At the event she is patiently explaining things to an obtuse questioner: fiction is not reality, and no, readers must not assume that the characters’ opinions are shared by the author. The author, she repeats should never be confused with her characters in any way. Lucy is struck by this – and the reader is struck by how, in this chapter at the mid-point in the novel, Elizabeth Strout is making such a big thing of the nature of stories. ‘It’s not my job to make readers know what’s the narrative voice and not the private view of the author,’ says Sarah Payne.

It might only be the stuff of basic literature studies, but wondering why Strout chose to make the point just at this moment was one of the reasons why I re-read it. What is she trying to do with fiction in this short novel? And why does she have Lucy mention the man she met who thought that there was ‘too much compassion’ in Sarah Payne’s novels? Is her own story a riposte to that idea? Can’t there be compassion in the most unlikely places if you look for it – or if somebody shows it to you?

I don’t know the answers, obviously. What I do know is that the narrator of this particular fiction must have considered very carefully every detail of its construction. I’m sure that every one of those juxtapositions of parental neglect and the kindness of strangers is calculated, and every new mention of another near-stranger she tells us she loves. Lucy feels as much love for her Jewish doctor, the one whose relatives all ‘died in the camps,’ as she did for that teacher – and more than for the artist who liked sex with her, but always vetoed the idea of children. (It’s a little thing he says that finally makes her realise he isn’t the one for her. She makes a big thing of how the little things can make all the difference, if we listen.)

At one level, these men represent the father she never really had – fathers are as important in this book as mothers. She only mentions a single touch from her real father that she chooses to remember as tender, when he supported her head as he carried her from the truck on that fateful day – but what can we make, for instance, of the fact that one of the things she loves about the doctor is the way, when he examines her, that he flicks the screen around her to block her mother’s view? Things often seem simple in this novel, and definitely aren’t. And what are we to make, for instance, of the statue in front of the art gallery, that she sees as the epitome of compassion? It depicts a father whose children would, apparently, have him eat them rather than go on suffering.

I don’t know where any of this is going yet, except that she will survive. When she looks down at the women of her own age on the sidewalk in the opening chapter, she decides she will ‘always give thanks’ if she is able to join them again. And ‘for many years I did that – I would remember the view from the hospital window and be glad for the sidewalk I was walking on.’ But is there something she knows, decades later, that we don’t? We’ll see. There is one wry little aside she comes up with in a much later chapter, in response to the idea that life goes on: ‘Until it doesn’t.’

24 November
Second half
She meant what she said about life going on until it doesn’t. Nearly thirty years after those five days in the hospital, she’s still alive, but both her parents are dead. And, while they might never have been able to tell her they loved her, she had learnt how to say it to them. Crucially, Elizabeth Strout manages to make it seem not at all sentimental.

In case we’d been wondering what this book has been about so far, Sarah Payne lays it all out for us. Shortly after the half-way point, Lucy shows her some early sketches of this memoir she will not publish until many years later. She quotes her mentor’s feedback verbatim, in case we haven’t got it: ‘This is a story about love, you know that. This is a story of a man who has been tortured every day of his life for things he did in the war. This is the story of a wife who stayed with him … and she comes to her daughter’s hospital room and talks compulsively about everybody’s marriage going bad, she doesn’t even know it, doesn’t even know that’s what she’s doing.’ Thanks Sarah Payne, thanks Elizabeth Strout. Got it now.

In all sorts of ways, things are made much more explicit in this second half of the novel. Strout appears to have created the Sarah Payne character for just this purpose, because it’s part of Lucy’s character that there have to remain strict limits to what she is prepared to tell us. (Later, when she is successful enough to afford the services of one of the ‘kind doctors’ she loves, presumably a psycho-analyst, there are things in her past that she can only write down, not say out loud.) So Sarah isn’t only the friend of the careless reader who might have missed something, and she isn’t only Lucy’s guru – although she does become that. She’s also part alter-ego, beginning with that accidental meeting in the clothes-shop. She is as hesitant as Lucy herself to say who she is – names, again – even though she’s well-known enough for Lucy to own some of her books. And she brings about two key moments in Lucy’s development as a writer. It’s her explanation of what is and isn’t fiction that spurs Lucy on to begin writing her own memoir. As we know, she had only published a couple of things before this (she probably calls them ‘little’ things) in small-circulation journals. But it’s during a week-long workshop run by Sarah that we really begin to see the connections.

After a huge domestic cat suddenly jumps on the seminar table, making both Sarah and Lucy jump back in terror, another class-member asks Sarah how long she’s suffered from post-traumatic stress. Later, it’s Lucy who is briefly the mentor, reassuring her that she jumped just as much. (File that away for later. It goes further than her terror of snakes.) But it’s Sarah’s immediate recognition of the truthfulness of Lucy’s story that connects them most closely. Lucy tells us she never does get to the bottom of Sarah’s ‘one story’ which, during the feedback session, she says everybody has. It’s now that she mutates into something more than merely Lucy’s guru. She has become a kind of literary oracle, because what she tells Lucy is also what Elizabeth Strout is telling the reader. Sarah, whose writing has been criticised by a man Lucy has met at a party for being ‘too softened by compassion,’ also tells her (and us) that an author must write ‘with an open heart.’ At other times, she says both that a writer must never judge, but that if awkward details about a character get left out, ‘you aren’t doing it right.’

Kindness and honesty – compassion, in other words – are set up as a kind of literary ideal. Very early on, I was saying how Strout is interested in how stories are told, or not told. And in this more explicit second half, an interest in narrative becomes a full-blown literary manifesto. Could she, Strout, have done it without Sarah Payne? Is this character, who only appears at key moments, not so much Lucy’s alter-ego as Elizabeth Strout’s? Once her work is done, after she has told Lucy all she knows, she disappears. They have shared their thoughts about the student who referred to Sarah’s post-traumatic stress – a psycho-analyst, for goodness’ sake – and have found her wanting. And after Lucy has left, she tells us: ‘I have never seen her since.’

(‘It’s not my job to make readers know what’s the narrative voice and not the private view of the author,’ Sarah Payne said to that incautious reader at the literary event. No, it’s the reader’s job, and I’ve made up my own mind. It seems to be no coincidence that Sarah Payne writes what sound like exactly the kind of compassionate novels that Elizabeth Strout writes.)

So, is Lucy able to use what she’s learned? Is the reader? We’ve been alerted to so many things that it makes reading the novel far from straightforward. One reviewer, quoted on the cover of my edition, writes that she kept forgetting she was reading a novel. I can’t understand that. I really enjoyed reading it, twice (I re-read the second half immediately too), but it’s because I was intrigued from the beginning by the task that Elizabeth Strout had set for herself. I never for a moment imagined that I was really reading a memoir by a woman coming to terms with the trauma of her upbringing. It’s a novel about a woman who, through a chance encounter with a particularly sensitive kind of writer, learns how to find the right way of going about it. For her, spoken language is too harrowing a medium – most of the conversations with her mother demonstrate what a war-zone it had always been for both of them – so, she writes. She writes those sentences for her analyst instead of saying them not because she’s ashamed, but because she has found a different way to express the pain. High-achieving, high-earning writer that she has become, she is able to take the reader through the imperfect process of discovery with her.

This, I only now realise, has been Elizabeth Strout’s project. She has to equip her dirt-poor narrator – I’ll come back to the way she riffs on the idea of trash and trashiness – with sufficient literary resources for her to be able to describe not only her childhood, but also the trauma that defined her for the rest of her life. She has to learn not only what to include, but what to leave out – and how to suggest those little epiphanies that help her to come to terms with it.

It becomes part of her voice that it’s incomplete. Lucy’s voice is hesitant, as though even writing has its limits for her. Through the first half of the novel, and for most of the rest of it, there is always that obliqueness that keeps us guessing. It means that even at the end, whilst we might have a pretty good idea about why Lucy hated her childhood so much, there are questions left unanswered. Maybe Elizabeth Strout’s point is that however good a writer might be, however much therapy she can afford, naming the trauma doesn’t make it go away. Names, as we know, are slippery things at the best of times, and we’ve known from the start how adept this writer is at simply neglecting to name certain things. Through Lucy’s voice, Strout is making the point that that some things can never be made explicit.

Things such as… ‘the Thing.’ It’s Lucy who italicises this unnamed horror of her childhood, but she obliquely lets us understand that it was to do with her father. In a late flashback to the writing workshop (less than 30 pages from the end of the novel), a student tells Sarah Payne about someone whose father had had a nervous breakdown: ‘He started to walk around their house masturbating.’ We know that Lucy’s own father has been traumatised by an incident in the war – it doesn’t matter if her brother’s version of it is the exact truth or not – and that it has affected his behaviour forever after. The student’s story galvanises Lucy: ‘I became freezing cold…. I had goosebumps all over me.’ After Sarah Payne has made light of it – it is only an anecdote about someone not related to the man who tells it, and it clearly has no resonances for her – we get this from Lucy: ‘I have never before heard, not have I heard since, of this Thing – as I called it to myself – happening as it had happened in our home.’ We don’t know what she witnessed exactly, although there doesn’t seem much room for doubt.

She has been prepared to describe other horrors less obliquely. Her father, finding her brother in high heels and wearing his mother’s underclothes, forces him to parade up and down the street in public while he shrieks insults at him. This we know – and that later he lies next to his son, and it’s impossible to know whose sobs are whose. But we don’t know whether this is what she wrote for her therapist to read. It might explain her brother’s failure to grow into a functioning adult by time he reaches his thirties (although we do know he holds down a job better than his confrontational father in later life). Or it might not. Were the tears his father shed to do with more than merely humiliating his son? Was he ashamed about something else, perhaps worse? We don’t know. But Lucy is fond of letting us know how imperfect her own memories are – that of her brother’s humiliation, for instance: ‘I am not sure it is a true memory, except I do know it, I think. I mean: It is true. Ask anyone who knew us.’ It’s perfectly possible for us to imagine it to be a sublimated version of what really used to happen between her father and brother in the one-room garage. And it’s possible to imagine that her memory of a different incident, the snake in her father’s truck, is also covering up something worse. Freud would love it.

Ok. But trauma and the art of fiction aren’t the only threads. The framing story of the five days Lucy’s mother spends by her bedside continues for a while, and things become as intimate as they’ve ever been between them. Which isn’t saying much. ‘Mommy, do you love me?’ she dares to ask. Answer: ‘Wizzle, stop.’ She asks again, laughing – ‘and she began to laugh too.’ But When Lucy pushes it as far as she can, the best she gets is by way of a game where she closes her eyes. (Closing your eyes is another thing in this universe. Lucy’s mother does it all the time when things get difficult.) After batting the question back and forth for a while, finally: ‘When your eyes are closed.’ ‘When my eyes are closed?’ ‘When your eyes are closed.’ It’s slim enough pickings, but ‘I was so happy!’ In case we haven’t got it, she cites one of Sarah Payne’s guiding principles: ‘if there is a weakness in your story, address it head-on. Lucy apparently decides this means to spell it out: ‘I feel that people may not understand that my mother could never say the words I love you. I feel that people may not understand: It was all right.’ Thanks again Lucy. Got it, again.

So things are fine between them, yes? Obviously not. Earlier, Lucy hadn’t been able to stop herself from picking her mother up on her use of the word ‘trash’ to describe one of the feckless men in her endless collection of stories. ‘We were trash,’ says Lucy. ‘That’s exactly what we were.’ Oh dear. ‘In the voice from my childhood, my mother said, ‘Lucy damn-dog Barton, I did not fly across the country to have you tell me that we are trash.’ She goes on to talk about how her ancestors were early Massachusetts settlers and… and so on. Lucy is mortified, and as furious as her mother, and imagines reminding her of how many Indians her ancestors must have killed. Of course, she says nothing. ‘I felt it in my body. I wanted to say, Go home.’ Well… the next day, not long after the ‘with your eyes closed’ moment, she does go home. Just after the doctor comes in to tell Lucy that she needs another X-ray and might need further surgery, and after she has panicked about it – ‘I can’t… I’ll die if I have surgery’ – her mother stands up: ‘It’s time for me to go home.’ The doctor, always unimpressed by her, keeps his thoughts to himself.

Lucy only sees her mother once more, ten years later. She’s dying, after years of Lucy not visiting her because, well, she knows she’ll always be an outsider to her family. And, after one day: ‘Lucy’ – how often has she called her that? – ‘I need you to leave.’ The end. Lucy pretends she means just for now, but she knows really. And when she tells her mother she’ll miss her, she says, ‘Yes, you will.’ She leaves, telling herself that her mother must have heard her final ‘Mommy, I love you!’ from outside the door, and that’s it. Her father, who had been the sad old man you would expect when she met him the day before at the hospital, tells her there will be no funeral service. Outsiders like them, Lucy realises, don’t have services that nobody they know will want to attend. After his own death a year later, there’s no service for him either.

And, scattered over the last 40 or 50 pages, we get a Lucy-like version of her life after what turns out to be five more weeks in hospital. We catch glimpses of her increasingly problematic relationship with her husband, her leaving him, the impact on her relationship with her daughters as they grow into adulthood. They always get on well, a visit to Bloomingdales always featuring during their visits to New York – but they never, ever come and stay with her, although she always makes sure that any new apartment has a guest-room. She marries again, this time to a man brought up in poverty but who, like her, has made a career in the arts. I recognise what she says about the discomfort that people brought up without money feel about carefree spending. Lucy’s first husband was a generous spender, and she never quite understood it. Her second husband isn’t, and she does.

Money. Her first novel is a success and, like Strout, she writes more books and starts to make real money. She can afford not only to visit an analyst, she also joins the other women making sure they don’t look like their mothers – I think that’s how she puts it – at a cosmetic surgery practice. There, or at another practice she visits, she sees the routine politeness of a middle-class boy in his late teens as he holds open the door for an old woman. Not for the first or last time, it reminds her of the things she likes so much about New York. She loves this city… and maybe that’s what the vision of the Chrysler Building was all about. Life can be – what? Something to be celebrated.

In the apartment block, she is able to make friends with some of her neighbours, and she tells us about them. One, Jeremy, tells her that she will have to be ruthless if she is going to be a writer, and she takes this to mean ruthlessly honest about human nature. But, after she comes out of hospital, he is away. He never comes back, because he has become one of the many victims of Aids to be seen haunting the streets. There was one in the hospital, while she was left waiting after that X-ray, and she deliberately held his gaze. The yellow labels to be seen on the doors of Aids patients in hospital remind her of the yellow stars the Jews had to wear in Nazi Germany.

It’s an extraordinarily rich novel, considering that it isn’t much longer than a novella. There is little in the way of a conventional plot, but Strout is able to cover a huge amount of ground. Novels have been written before this one about the perils of moving up from one social class to another, but rarely has an author paid so much attention to the nuances of social difference and the lies we tell ourselves and others about them. ‘Trash,’ Lucy calls her family, and she means it. But when the woman she describes as her best friend objects to her use of the word ‘trashy’ to describe her own behaviour (she and her mother hit one another during rows), she has to re-examine what she means. Sarah Payne had warned her about the hazards of describing things honestly. ‘People will go after you for combining poverty and abuse… and will never say anything. Never ever defend your work.’ So she doesn’t. This life, however unpalatable to some, is her life.

But… it isn’t only her life, as she reminds us in one of the mini-chapters towards the end. (Ten of them don’t go over the page, and they begin half-way down.) These are like a 21st Century version of those summaries in Victorian novels about what happens after the main action is over. Except, as we would expect from Lucy, her last musings come in almost unconnected fragments. In the one I’m thinking of, as hesitantly as ever, she seems to want to establish her own territory: ‘But this is my story,’ she asserts in a one-line paragraph. But then she has to reconsider, referring to threads of ideas that she’s been following: ‘And yet it’s the story of many. It is Molla’s story, my college roommate’s, it may be the story of the Pretty Nicely girls. Mommy. Mom!’ We know all these people that she can’t get out of her head. But she does her best to assert her own identity in the final short paragraph of the chapter: ‘But this one is my story. This one. And my name is Lucy Barton.’

However, it isn’t the final chapter. She seems reluctant to finish, because nothing ever finishes. She has been giving us these little chapters as though transcribing notes she’s written to herself. ‘When I left William…’ begins one of them, William having been her first husband. ‘But there is one more thing I would like to say about…’ begins another. But a novel has to end somewhere. After her attempt at assertiveness, there are two more short chapters. She asserts something different in the first of these, after having asked herself, ‘Do I understand that hurt my children feel?’ Yes, she does, and she ‘holds it tight.’ It’s the pain she will ‘always’ feel and, ‘This is mine, this is mine, this is mine.

It’s another ending, but it still won’t do. The final one is a memory of the beautiful light there would be on their farm at sunset, ‘the sky lingering, lingering, then finally dark. As though the soul can be quiet for those moments.’ In other words, even though hers will never be quiet, she can at least imagine it. It’s enough. It will have to be enough. The final one-line paragraph of the book is, to use Sarah Payne’s phrase, as open-hearted as she can make it:

‘All life amazes me.’

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