This short novel captivated me from the start and broke my heart a little. On the face of it, it is a simple enough story. Lucy Barton is in hospital to have her appendix removed, but her recovery is slow and she has to stay in for a number of weeks. This is New York in the mid 1980's, Lucy's chosen home city. The view from her window is of the Chrysler Building, bright, shiny, modern, sophisticated, as far removed from her hometown of Amgash, Illinois as it's possible to be.
She misses her young daughters. She is lonely in her expensive hospital room, paid for by her husband because "he could not stand" visiting her her in a public ward. She doesn't sleep well. Then her mother arrives and stays for five days.
This pivotal visit is a complete shock to Lucy as the two women haven't seen each other for many years. At first they are both distant and intimate with one another. Lucy's mother calls her by her childhood pet name, but won't ask her about her husband or children. They gossip about people from home, perhaps because neutral ground is often the safest space to occupy.
Slowly, as they skirt around each other, we learn more about Lucy's back-story. A troubled family and a life of poverty, exclusion, pain and loneliness, of never being good enough, never having enough. “We were oddities, our family,” Lucy says.
The story see-saws back and forth between the past and the present. Lucy has left her hometown, gone to college, become a successful writer, a wife, a mother. But the visit from her mother brings her past back into sharp focus and we see in Lucy a longing to be loved by her mother, who can’t say the words except as part of a game.
“Come on, Mom. My eyes are closed.” There was a silence for a while. I was happy. “Mom?” I said. “When your eyes are closed,” she said. “You love me when my eyes are closed?” “When your eyes are closed,” she said. And we stopped the game, but I was so happy. Heartbreaking.
There are other characters and relationships in this book, and though interesting, their stories hang a little like loose threads. At the heart of this novel is the relationship between a daughter and her mother. And love - getting it, not getting enough of it, giving it, giving too much of it. My Name is Lucy Barton is at times painfully sad, gut-wrenching in fact. It is also memorable and tender, the storytelling rich and affecting.