Lucy Barton finds herself in hospital for 9 weeks fighting a mysterious virus. Her estranged mother suddenly shows up and stays for 5 days. It is this intimate visit that becomes the catalyst for Lucy (and the reader) to meander back into Lucy’s childhood, marked by the shame of extreme poverty and abuse. Her mother spends a lot of time talking about the secrets of others, while never being willing to reveal any of her own. Sitting patiently at Lucy’s bedside through night and day, refusing a cot, her mother says, “I’m used to catnapping. You learn to when you don’t feel safe.” Lucy must come to terms with the scars of her past as well as her vocation, marriage, and family relationships.
Strout is always in full command of a story. What I love about her writing is that she can evoke powerful emotion without an iota of sentimentality. Many things about Lucy’s childhood are merely hinted at as she explores this strange mother daughter relationship through some harrowing memories. Not all of it is spelled out on purpose. Strout respects the reader enough to leave gaps that can be filled in different ways depending on what the individual reader brings to the reading. It is at first glance a simple story, character driven, and sparse, but very rich in texture. The slim novel has very short chapters and lots of white space…it felt like the publisher too was leaving room for interpretation and reflection. But Strout is the kind of writer who can use few words to say an awful lot. Olive Kitteredge is my favourite of her books so far. Still The Burgess Boys and Amy & Isabelle to go!