My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout


My Name is Lucy Barton

by Elizabeth Strout

Ack.  This is one of those books that I just didn’t get.  Apparently, it’s longlisted for the Man Booker Prize and named one of the best books of the year by all sorts of prestigious publications.  I didn’t feel it.

The story is told in the first person.  Lucy Barton, now past her prime, recounts a time many years ago when she was a young mother and became very ill and spent nine weeks in the hospital.  During that time, her mother, from whom she had been estranged for many years, comes to visit her and stays for five days and nights, sitting at Lucy’s bedside.  During those five days and nights, mother and daughter warily try to heal old wounds, without actually facing them head on.  Lucy also revisits scenes from her childhood, many of which were painful (there is a scene in which she was repeatedly locked in a truck for hours by her parents when she was very small, that was quite unsettling).  Lucy comes to understand her mother perhaps a little better (though her mother is stubbornly enigmatic and closed off), and perhaps herself a little better, but there really is never any resolution, and her mother ends her visit as suddenly as she showed up.

I think what bugged me is that Lucy very much seems like a victim, and she never really rises above that.  She reverts to behaving like a little girl in her mother’s presence and is never able to stand up to her mother.  I’m drawn to stories about fraught mother-daughter relationships because they often resonate with me, but this one fell a little flat.  I finished the story wondering “What was the point of that?”

Elizabeth Strout is a gifted novelist, but this one just didn’t do it for me.

With or Without You by Domenica Ruta

RUTA_WithWithoutYou_tr With or Without You: A Memoir
by Domenica Ruta

Here is yet another memoir about addiction and destructive love – this time between a mother and daughter, the author being the daughter.

Ruta grew up in Danvers, a town outside of Boston.  The only child of a drug addicted single mother who got pregnant at the age of twenty, already well down the road of addiction, Ruta’s mother claimed to have loved her daughter so much that she immediately got clean and sober the moment she discovered herself pregnant.  Whether she actually stayed clean for the duration of her pregnancy is unknown, but she was back in full swing popping pills and snorting coke before her daughter was out of diapers.  Some of Ruta’s earliest memories are of syringes, blackened spoons, straws, and dinner plates with remnants of white powder clinging to them scattered casually about their run-down house.  It wasn’t long before Ruta dipped her toes into the cesspool of drug abuse herself – at her mother’s urging; Ruta popped her first Oxycontin at the age of ten.  By the time she was midway through high school, she was snorting “Oscars,” dropping acid, smoking copious amounts of weed and drinking copious amounts of alcohol.  Through all of this, Ruta and her mother teetered on a seesaw of love and hate; theirs was a classic toxic relationship.

Somehow through all of this, Ruta managed to do very well in school and earned a scholarship first to a boarding school, and then to a small college in Ohio.  She continued to spiral out of control with her addiction, however, and involved herself in several dead-end romantic relationships.  Her mother became more and more an albatross around her neck, and finally, Ruta cuts all ties with her mother – a difficult and painful, but utterly necessary undertaking.

Finally, Ruta is ready to face her own addiction – and the pain and resentment she’s carried around her whole life at her mother’s neglect, trashy life, and failure to protect her from being raped repeatedly as a child by an uncle – that he was a pedophile and had a “thing” for Ruta was an open secret in the family.  She joins a twelve-step program, and after a few false starts and relapses, she finds herself clean and sober, hopefully for good.

Ruta is a gifted writer, and her descriptions and recounting are so vivid, I felt like I could picture it all in my mind’s eye.  A lot of her story resonates with me – the toxic mother who had to be excised, the filthy childhood house, the feelings of loneliness, and addiction – though not my own.  I found myself feeling angry as I read;  although I could relate to the author herself, I also felt disgusted at her spiral into addiction.  I guess I’ve just had too many addicts in my own life to dredge up much compassion.

Very readable, but I wonder why we haven’t grown tired of these types of stories.  Shitty childhoods and addictions – the market is flooded with these memoirs.  Very well-written, but nothing new.

Glitter and Glue by Kelly Corrigan

glitter Glitter and Glue: A Memoir
by Kelly Corrigan

To a great extent, women will not appreciate or understand their own mothers until they themselves are mothers – it’s just a fact of life.  In this new memoir due out in February (I read an advance copy), Corrigan recounts her trip around the world as a young adult during which she landed a job as a nanny for several months to a family in Australia, and how being thrust into the role of caretaker to two young children who had lost their mother gave her pause about her own mother.

“Things happen when you leave the house.”  That was Corrigan’s motto, and she was determined, upon finishing college, to see the world, have many adventures, and become interesting.  So she and a girlfriend buy round-the-world tickets and set off – only, part way through the trip, they start running out of money and realize they need to find temporary employment to pay for the rest of their trip.  Corrigan lands a five-month stint as a nanny for a widower and his two young children, whose wife/mother died from cancer six months previously.  Suddenly, Corrigan hears her own mother’s voice everywhere, and a longing to know her better – the woman, the person – grips her.

Soon enough, her nanny stint comes to an end, and Corrigan resumes her adventures, and the longing for and connection to her mother that she felt while caring for the Tanner children fades.  It isn’t until years later, when she becomes a mother herself, that those feelings resurface.  This book is, in its way, Corrigan’s tribute to her mother.

There were so many passages in this book that struck a chord with me – so many nuggets of truth, so many dog-eared pages.

” The thing about mothers, I want to say, is that once the containment ends and one becomes two, you don’t always fit together so neatly.  They don’t get you like you want them to, like you think they should, they could, if only they would pay closer attention.  They agonize over all the wrong things, cycling through one inane idea after another: seat belts, flossing, the golden rule.  The living mother-daughter relationship, you learn over and over again, is a constant choice between adaptation or acceptance.

“The only mothers who never embarrass, harass, dismiss, discount, deceive, distort, neglect, baffle, appall, inhibit, incite, insult, or age poorly are dead mothers, perfectly contained in photographs, pressed into two dimensions like a golden autumn leaf.”

Referring to the little girl she nannies for in Australia –

“For better or worse, I’ve latched on to Milly’s ecosystem.  What happens to her happens – in some weird, refracted way that seems slightly dangerous – to me, too.  And it occurs to me that maybe the reason my mother was so exhausted all the time wasn’t because she was doing so much but because she was feeling so much.”

Reflecting on a skirmish with her own daughter over homework in later years, and the dark thoughts that surface in the night –

“After Georgia storms off, Edward says, ‘When I first met you, you didn’t drink coffee, and you were so mellow.’  How can I tell him that I was a dog in show, high-stepping with my shiny hair and sparkly striped collar?  Twelve years and two puppies later, I’m an ungroomed bitch who barks at flies.

“Beneath my frustration is real fear.  What if my kid lacks a handful of the critical Life Skills we’re always reading about in the school newsletter: Persistence, Coachability, Curiosity?  What if there’s iceberg hardening right now beneath this defeatism?  If a child can’t find a single word online about cheetah propagation, what kind of future can she hope for?  That’s why I snap and storm around and then spend long night thinking of the most damaged adults I know and wondering if my particular brand of maternal fuckups are how they end up like that.”

More than making me long to understand my own mother, this book has me longing for the day when my own daughters might understand me – and I realize that it won’t happen until they are mothers themselves.  The mother-daughter relationship is so fraught.

I love Kelly Corrigan.  I loved The Middle Place, her memoir about her battle with breast cancer that took place simultaneously with her father’s battle with bladder cancer.  She’s funny and honest and real, and reading her books feels very much like sitting down over coffee with a close girlfriend.  All through this book, I laughed and cried.  I only wished that her stint in Australia had lasted longer.

I’m sure this will be another best-seller; it’s good stuff.