If you ever worried as a child about bringing other children home from school and their possible reaction to your home and family life, this book will resonate with you. If you ever reconnected with a close relative after a long absence, ditto.
Lucy Barton had a pretty horrific childhood: dirt-poor for many years the family lived in an actual garage without running water. And not only was there little money, food, or clothes, but her parents provided little emotional sustenance.
Strout takes you deep into the mind and heart of her protagonist, a young mother in her twenties, recently hospitalized after an operation. Lucy is happily married with two young children whom she feels she has abandoned because of her illness. She also is a new writer, proud of her work, but still not at ease calling herself an author.
The present time of the book occurs in a New York City hospital where Lucy is amazed to see her mother, who’s come all the way from Iowa to take care of her daughter. But this is so out of character for her, that Lucy can scarcely believe she has arrived. Neither parent has ever visited Lucy before and neither attended her wedding. At his one meeting with their future son-in-law, Lucy's father flipped out because her fiancée was German.
Mother and daughter begin a series of conversations, mostly about neighbors or old classmates back in Iowa, but in the process they touch on important issues of family, loyalty, trust, homophobia, and emotional abuse.
Strout’s narrative voice is so strong, and the thoughts so singular, that for a while you forget who you are, and totally immerse yourself in the character.
In the process you discover Lucy’s story, how in high school she stayed every day reading books until a teacher or custodian locked the doors. You also learn how her father, a WW II vet, humiliated her brother who was cross-dressing in clothes left by neighbors to be mended by her mother. Their dad forced her brother to march down the main street of the small town in a woman’s stockings, girdle, and bra.
We also learn about how Lucy escaped to college and never returned to live at home again, eventually moving to New York where she met her husband.
A side character who occasionally watches the odd interplay between Lucy and her mother is the caring physician who visits Lucy every day but Father’s Day over the course of three months, yet only charges for five hospital visits. By him Lucy feels loved and accepted, something her family life has always left her unsure about.
At heart this is a book about family love, and the ties that bind us that not neither time nor distance can unravel. A tour de force.