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The radical empathy of Elizabeth Strout

  • 01 September 2023
  The American writer Elizabeth Strout can be considered a late starter. Born in Maine in 1956, she spent many years writing without much success. She is a trained lawyer but always wanted to be a writer, and so she persisted. Her first novel was published in 1998, and since then she has written eight more. In 2009 she won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for her book Olive Kitteridge. This is a collection of thirteen linked stories featuring retired school teacher Olive, a cantankerous but still sympathetic character. The setting is Maine, to which place Strout returns again and again.

There are four Lucy Barton books: My Name is Lucy Barton, Anything is Possible, Oh William!, and Lucy By the Sea. My Name is Lucy Barton appeared in 2016. Protagonist Lucy languishes in hospital, and her husband William pays for her mother to visit her there while he goes to work and looks after the couple’s two young daughters. Lucy is terribly lonely in hospital. The reader learns that she led a very isolated life until she left home to go to college. And while there is no graphic detail, the reader also learns that Lucy’s childhood was dysfunctional and marked by poverty, and that her father had been irrevocably damaged by his service during World War II.

At the time of their hospital meeting, Lucy and her mother have been estranged for years, yet this novel is a tender account of the complicated connections between mothers and daughters. Lucy’s mother often comes across as being unyielding and hard, for hard lives frequently make hard people, unless there is hope of escape. Lucy escapes her hard childhood through a college scholarship but does not escape wistfulness and yearning.

This is a novel of infinite subtlety and precision — definitely a book to be re-read. The late lamented writer Hilary Mantel said that this was the first work of Strout’s she had read, and that Strout had ‘a commitment to listening’. She added that writing of such quality also comes from ‘a perfect attunement to the human condition, from an attention to reality so exact that it goes beyond a skill and becomes a virtue’. Mantel knew that Strout was an artist to value and respect.

I think that respect only grows with the sequels to My Name is Lucy Barton.

My mother, a wise woman, once remarked that ‘nobody knows the inside story of a