A Series of Simple Joys, with Elizabeth Strout

I read Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton in a span of two days. It was hard to put down, for many good reasons.

Lucy Barton’s story is not grand by any means. She’s laying on a hospital bed in Manhattan for the most part, as she recounts experiences, relationships and various moments in life.

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There aren’t any unexpected plot twists, nor any breathtaking events that unfold. What you have is this instead: the clear voice of a woman, with an unhurried perspective on life.

I’m a fan of books that weave the political with the personal, books that explore spirituality, philosophy, history and literature. Of the most recent books I’ve immersed myself in, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman and Alain de Botton’s On Love: A Novel.

Lucy’s story wasn’t as wild, or philosophical, or as political as I’m used to but her voice stayed with me for a few days after I finished. She wrote about reading a lot, something I discovered after looking at all the pages I marked and went back to. Just like me, she grew up in the company of books. And just like me, she dreamt of being a writer.

My teacher saw that I loved reading, and she gave me books, even grown-up books, and I read them. And then later in high school I still read books, when my one work was done, in the warm school. But the books brought me things. This is my point. They made me feel less alone. This is my point. And I thought: I will write and people will not feel alone!

The stark simplicity and honesty of her voice struck me as genuine and whereas in other instances I would be uncomfortable, I was with her.

I say this because as a queer brown immigrant from the Philippines, it’s rare that I am able to find connections with those who enjoy (whether they are aware of it or not, whether they are complicit or not) privileges that have caused the oppression of others.

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Whereas the book’s summary alludes to Lucy’s mother and family life, the tension and longing that reverberates with me the most was about class.

The poverty that she talked about in her childhood surprised me. I was used to reading about poverty and the lives of poor people on books set in the third-world; I wasn’t used to reading about poor, white people who lived in dirt roads in Amgash, Illinois. Reading about white Americans who neither had television or books in the house was that even she didn’t think people would believe it.

Vicky and I understood that we were different. We were told on the playground by other children “Your family stinks,” and they’d run off pinching their noses their fingers; my sister was told by her second-grade teacher — in front of the class — that being poor was no excuse for having dirt behind the ears, no one was too poor to buy a bar of soap.

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Lucy carries this tension throughout her life — through college, in her marriage, in relationships, in her writing. It is the constant undercurrent in every exchange with her mother, who stayed in the hospital with her for five, straight days barely without sleep. When a nurse brought in a gossip magazine that her mother refused to read, she made sure to hide it just in case the doctor came in.

But about the magazine, I’m sure it would not have any dent in my doctor’s heart. But that is how sensitive we both were, my mother and I. There is that constant judgment in this world: How are we going to make sure we do not feel inferior to another?

It was the look on her neighbor Jeremy’s face, a look that she instantly recognized as she raved about finally making it and living in New York City. It was the look of real distaste, Lucy thought, a kind of disgust city people felt for those who were truly provincial.

It was in the writing workshop she attended, as her instructor told her that she had a right to tell her story of poverty and abuse.

It was in the last throes of her marriage, even as she divorced her husband. Money came up.

…when I say “And for myself, I didn’t care,” I mean this: that to be raised the way I was, with so little — only the inside of my head to call my own– I did not require much.

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Still, there were several times in the book that refracts a kind of beer-golden light across dark corners. She comes up every time, hungrily but patiently, breathes it all in. Lucy taught me how to cherish even the smallest of moments, find joy in the simplest places.

Combined with Strout’s skill of being able to convey what is often unsaid, My Name is Lucy Barton makes for a truly memorable read.

I have said before: It interest me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people. It happens everywhere, and all the time. Whatever we call it, I think it’s the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down.

* * *

All illustrations are by the amazing Jasu Hu.

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