It’s been a couple of days since I finished reading this book and I have been thinking about it since. What makes this book so gripping, almost haunting? It’s certainly not the plot, but definitely the voice of Lucy Barton that conveys the feelings of loneliness and isolation, and her attachment to her past, her family, her parents, and her present, her marriage and her daughters. Written in sparse language, accentuated with repetition to deliver her state of mind, her stream of consciousness, we get glimpses of Lucy’s life, her relationships or lack of relationships, and read between the lines. What is not said is poignant, as well as what has been said. A childhood deprived of love from her parents, poverty, and isolation from the main stream of life. Lucy begins to read books to escape into another world and stays at school to do her homework to keep warm, rather than go home to the cold garage where her family lived during most of her childhood. Lucy is a good student and she breaks free from her past after her college education.
From Amgash, Illinois to Manhattan, New York, Lucy’s life changes, but the past remains with her as we gather from her conversations with her mother at the hospital where Lucy stays after an operation that has gone wrong. Lucy’s mother spends five days with her while they talk about the people in her hometown. Lives that have gone wrong, people who did well, yet experienced unhappiness in the end. Lucy hasn’t seen her mother for many years and she doesn’t see her for many years afterwards, until she visits her mother at the hospital where she dies. Lucy loves her mother, but her mother is unable to say “I love you.”
As well as the many characters from Amgash, Illinois, there are two important people in Lucy’s life that shape her career as a writer. Sarah Payne, the writer, and Jeremy, the sophisticated neighbour who dies of AIDS. Lucy loves her daughters and does not divorce her husband until they leave home. Yet, what her daughter, Becka, says afterwards is something that will stay with her all her life.
Her past is what makes Lucy. The fact that she comes from ‘nowhere’ is something her mother does not accept. It is also the reason that isolates Lucy from her new surroundings, and her husband. Jeremy says she needs to be ruthless to be a writer. Sarah Payne says, “You’ll have only one story. You’ll write your one story many ways.” Lucy knows if she doesn’t divorce her husband, she will never write another story. She finds another man who comes from ‘nowhere’ and embraces her life, her traumas, her dark side.