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For this month’s Reader’s Review, we explore the novel “My Name Is Lucy Barton” by Elizabeth Strout, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Olive Kitteridge.” Lucy Barton grows up poor and isolated in rural Illinois. Other children make fun of her family’s poverty. A lone tree in a field is her only friend. A college scholarship provides an escape from her abusive parents and her past. But after a prolonged hospital stay reunites Lucy with her mother, we come to see how complex are the ties that keep us connected to family and longing for love. Join Diane and guests for a discussion of “My Name Is Lucy Barton.”
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Lucy Barton is the narrator and protagonist of the novel for this Readers' Review. She's rescued from the poverty of her childhood by a college scholarship and a husband with means. As a young woman with two daughters, Lucy is briefly reunited with her mother. There are moments of tenderness and eons of longing.
MS. DIANE REHMHere in the studio to discuss Elizabeth Strout's novel, "My Name is Lucy Barton," visiting professor at Georgetown University, Aminatta Forna, author Adam Goodheart of Washington College and Barrie Hardymon of NPR. I do invite you to be part of the program. Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. Well, welcome to you all.
MR. ADAM GOODHEARTGreat to be back.
MS. AMINATTA FORNAThank you.
MS. BARRIE HARDYMONSo glad to be here.
REHMBarrie Hardymon, let me start with you. In essence what do you think this novel is about?
HARDYMONI think it is about the burdens that we carry from our childhood and how they -- how we metabolize them as we grow up. You know, in a simple way it is about the sort of -- the five days that Lucy Barton spends in the hospital with her mother. And it's the crucible for their relationship. And you -- and the broad strokes of her childhood are painted. It is a -- not a happy childhood. It is a childhood filled with poverty, hints of abuse of -- that are sudden and terrifying.
HARDYMONAnd how -- who those things have made Lucy, as she, you know, is now this quite successful, you know, mother of two, she's married, you know, as you said, a husband of means. She is a writer. She's a person who…
HARDYMON…has metabolized it through literature, which is something -- there's this sort of the side stretch of how do you become yourself and then also write about it.
REHMAdam Goodheart, what were your impressions of the novel?
GOODHEARTWell, as a historian I was really impressed by its sense of history, both personal history and then national history creeping in here and there. There are references to World War II, to Vietnam, to AIDS, to history even farther back to the pioneers who settled the Great Plains where the novel is set. And there was a lot of, of course, personal history, as Barrie mentioned, that was shaping this character and her voice and the storytelling. But there's also a sense of American history as deforming lives and something you ultimately can't escape.
REHMAnd, Aminatta, it seemed to me there was such a portrayal of abject poverty that really got to my heart.
FORNAI agree. For those of us who don't know what that kind of poverty feels like, the description was really, really visceral, wasn't it. The family lived in a garage. It was cold. They were not just physically isolated -- and there's a wonderful passage where Lucy talks about a tree in a field on its own and how she thought of that tree as her friend. So there's this enormous sense of isolation and depravation, but also being shunned for being poor. I think that was one of the things that shocked me the most, that this family were actually shunned for being poor.
REHMAnd she, Lucy, made fun of, she and her brother, sister, made fun of because children said you stink or you know…
FORNALaughed at their clothes, yeah. And make her -- one of her first loves makes a rather unpleasant joke about the family eating baked beans because she said they didn't have much else to eat. And there's also what I find -- found really delicate and beautifully turned about it, was Lucy's gradual awakening to the fact that her poverty meant something to other people and meant something to her mother. And how that poverty invaded the sensibilities of the whole family. So that they almost become emotionally impoverished, you know, the mother is very concerned with how things appear. She's not a snob, but she's very concerned with at least maintaining some degree of dignity.
REHMI was fascinated that they lived in this one room in the garage until the uncle dies. I didn't get that. And then they moved into his house, which is still cold.
GOODHEARTAnd there's a sense of this book being about moves from one place to another. And moves that are supposed to be improvements. But you don't necessarily feel like they are. Of course, the ultimate move, as Aminatta says, is that she goes to New York City and she is a person of means. And she's supposed to have escaped that loneliness, the bleakness of that landscape that stood for the bleakness of their lives. And yet, the first image of the book is the bleakness of the New York skyline. And you have a sense that in some ways she's as lonely in the city as she was. And she's a poor person there, too.
REHMBleakness with one image outside the window.
FORNAWell, it's quite…
HARDYMONThe Chrysler Building, yes.
FORNAIt's quite a fatalistic book. The mother -- the stories that the mother tells of the people that they knew, these people who, like Lucy, have often tried to free themselves of their, you know, of the life they expect to leave -- there's a woman who marries a -- leaves her husband with whom she feels frustrated and marries a man and then he abandons her.
FORNAThere's another woman whose husband dies. And actually all the mother's stories are about not freeing yourself from your present and your past and inescapability of the life that you were born into. And then running parallel to that is Lucy's own story, where she somehow manages it. Despite herself and despite her mother she somehow manages it.
REHMAnd I found myself saying, thank goodness for teachers. Teachers who watch, teachers who know exactly what is going on. And that is precisely how Lucy frees herself, Barrie.
HARDYMONIn all the ways, when she is a child doing her homework late in the schoolroom because it's warmer.
REHMJust so she can be warm.
HARDYMONRight. Just to keep to warm. And then the couple of moments that she has, I mean, the character of Sarah Payne, who is literary mentor to her, who looms really large over the book, although I think we only meet her in only what, three scenes? Who says these very important -- it's so lovely, the parallel thing, that Sarah Payne's advice to her is exactly the advice you could imagine somebody giving a writer like Elizabeth Strout, in that you must tell the truth.
HARDYMONIf you are not -- if you are protecting somebody, you are doing it wrong. And this woman who reached out to her and became this mentor, even just in these tiny, tiny ways, she runs into her in a clothing store. She sees her on stage at a panel. She goes to a workshop and they have these two moments that are -- that sort of -- that loom large. But it is a -- the generosity of spirit of the teachers that she encounters are the, you know, if there is a, you know, there's a lot of morality to this book, but it does give you the feeling that you must be generous in your life.
REHMIt does seem to me that at the center of this story is the mother/daughter reconnection. Now, we should say that Lucy Barton is a hospital bed. She remains in that hospital bed for nine weeks, after having a -- one would presume a simple appendectomy, but something goes bad, wrong. She's in that hospital for nine weeks. Lucy's husband calls Lucy's mother and asks her to come and visit and to stay with Lucy in that hospital room for five days. And during that five days, oh, my goodness, the stories in tiny fragments that come out are so heart wrenching.
HARDYMONReally poignant. And it's -- and it is this crucible for -- the stories that they're telling about all of these women who have made decisions for whatever reason. And then, yet, the moments that they almost talk about their own relationship…
HARDYMON…and almost have a moment of connection is so, I mean, it is -- it's -- the poignancy of those moments are just -- are mostly told in action. And her mother rushing to the basement to see the CAT scan happen in -- in a touch. And every time she says -- she calls her by her pet name, Wizzle. This moment where, no matter what the poverty of kindness was in her childhood, the reader does understand that, you know, that her mother loved her.
REHMHer mother is trying to make up for some of that.
GOODHEARTIt felt to me like almost a transformed version of "The Arabian Nights," this night after night of storytelling. Her mother is Scheherazade. In fact, that's what Lucy emphasizes at the beginning. She says for five days and nights my mother sat there by my bed telling stories. And as with Scheherazade, there's a sense that through stories comes a kind of salvation. And yet, something has gone terribly wrong in Lucy's own family, as well. The family that she's made in New York. And so the terribleness of her own family isn't something she's really escaped.
REHMAdam Goodheart is director of Washington College's C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience and author of "1861: The Civil War Awakening." Short break here, we'll be right back.
REHMFor this month's reader's review, we've chosen Pulitzer Prize-winning author Elizabeth Strout. Her latest novel is "My Name Is Lucy Barton." It begins and runs through the novel. It begins in a hospital room, where Lucy Barton is lying after what should have been a simple operation but turns out there are infections involved. Her mother comes to stay with her for five days, and the writing in this novel is so spare and so elegant. So much of this is implied.
REHMFor example, you know, the mother and the daughter get close to talking about the cruelty that was in their family, but they don't quite get there, Aminatta.
FORNAI started reading this book. It's not actually necessarily the kind of book I'm immediately drawn to. I'm usually drawn to something with a more distinct theme. But I came across these lines, if I could read them.
FORNASo this is when Lucy's mother turns up at the -- and is sitting at the end of the hospital bed when Lucy wakes up. Mum, how did you get here, I asked? Oh, I got on a plane. She wiggled her fingers, and I knew that there was too much emotion for us, so I waved back and lay flat. And the moment I read those lines, I thought, I'm in the hands of a master here, you know.
FORNAThis is going to be -- I read it twice. I would really advise anyone who is reading this book to take a second pass and maybe even a third pass.
MR. BARRIE HARDYMONAbsolutely.
FORNABecause it is so subtle and so finely woven. And there are just -- from a writer's point of view, I have to say elements of craftsmanship -- I wish I had written this book. I wish I could write books like this.
HARDYMONMy God, the structure alone.
FORNAThe structure. There's a dreamlike quality.
GOODHEARTAnd a flatness I found that reminded me of these Midwestern plains that she's describing. You get this voice that for a while you say, well, I'm not really sure where this story is going. It really doesn't go anywhere in the sense of a plot. And then you realize that is like a plain piece of fabric that you have to get very close to before you see an incredible weave to what's going on.
REHMThat's a lovely analogy. Barrie, you note that many things in the novel are unsaid, but sometimes there's a crucial directness.
HARDYMONSomething will come into relief in a way that -- and I would say it only happens maybe four or five times in the novel, but a thing is said. There's only one scene that actually lays out the moment of cruelty, you know, with her brother, you know, these moments. But in that same way, it is -- it is, you know, the way that your own life -- it does mimic the way one's own life is a series of vignettes. It's I went to the coffee shop.
HARDYMONI -- my mother came over and laid her hand on me, and then there was this one moment. And the way that that crucial -- that directness comes into play reflects on all the other sort of, as Adam was saying, all the other fabric of the novel. And it is also a real -- just masterfully structured. It's a mystery because you are waiting to find out, you know, what happens. And there -- it is also this -- you know, the story of a person learning to be an artist. It is the story of this mother-daughter relationship. And all of these threads weave together that by the end, this is why the second reading is so crucial, that you don't even realize that she -- how these threads came together.
FORNAI figured out that Lucy -- that Lucy Barton would be just a few years older than me, maybe five or six years older than me, and there's a generational quality to this. Adam talked a bit about the history and the setting, the time, but also Lucy Barton's mother comes from a generation who just didn't talk about their emotions.
FORNAI once wrote a memoir, and I remember interviewing my Scottish grandfather and my Scottish mother, and it was incredibly hard for them to talk about things that had happened in the family. They don't belong to this new generation who understand the idea of, you know, talking cure and the need to talk.
REHMBut you know, I found myself reading this book twice, as you did Aminatta, and probably you, Barrie, as well, feeling so powerfully the longing of this daughter to understand and connect with her mother. That to me seemed to be at the heart of the novel. And I wondered, Adam, whether you as a male reading it felt the same way or felt differently.
GOODHEARTI felt like there was a longing in the book, as you say, for connection that even during the AIDS epidemic, there's a scene where she says that she envied these men with AIDS who walked through the streets because she felt like they had a bond with each other. But I think that women's relationships are -- women's roles within families are supposed to be different, at least we tell ourselves that they're about nurturing, they're about holding families together.
GOODHEARTAnd that's perhaps something that both of these women grow into through the course of novel but certainly is very fraught throughout it.
REHMIt's interesting that when Lucy brings her husband home, he's not greeted very well, and we find out a little later it's because he is of German ancestry, and Lucy's father takes an immediate hatred toward him.
GOODHEARTThis history that he can't help.
GOODHEARTAnd yet changes his life.
REHMBecause he himself took the lives of two young Germans. It wasn't that he had been shot at or hurt or maimed, except emotionally. So he could never look at another German without feeling that guilt.
FORNADo you think the parents were lying to themselves about the fact that it was because he was German? Because one of the big themes in the book is Lucy escapes her family.
FORNAShe goes to college, and her parents never encourage her, never talk about how well she's doing. They're the kind of people who say know your place, aren't they? And so when she brings home this well-to-do young man who's going to take her out of all of that, they say -- the mother says, well, your father can't abide a German because this thing happened. And yet as you've just pointed out, he's not the victim of what happened, he's the aggressor in what happened.
FORNAAnd I wondered if the parents actually simply couldn't cope with the fact that Lucy was becoming something else and moving away from him, and he was part of that. And this was what they told themselves about their response.
HARDYMONI think that's a very interesting reading of it because when -- you know, toward the end, there's this turn of phrase where she says the roots have twisted around our hearts, and that's a moment where she is both being pulled in and being pushed away by her parents. And I think whether or not it is -- I think you're right that it is something unsaid. It's something that they tell themselves, that they wouldn't ever be able to express oh, he just comes from somewhere different, and she is going to transcend this.
HARDYMONI think that's an interesting reading.
REHMLucy herself relates to us from her hospital bed that she has two children, two daughters whom she loves dearly. And I feel that she feels she has a close relationship with them.
GOODHEARTAnd yet at the end of the book we find out that these daughters don't come back to visit her in the same way that she didn't come back to visit her family. And as the book progresses, we get I think a stronger and stronger sense that Lucy is not just the rejected but also the rejecter.
REHMOh, that's a terrible thought.
REHMIt's a terrible thought but real, real.
GOODHEARTYeah, she talks about her divorce with her husband, and then she says, well, I left my husband.
HARDYMONRight, and she sets up house elsewhere. I think it's clear that she yet again has to transcend a situation that is not conducive to her art.
FORNAAnd she's told by her friend Jeremy, who lives upstairs, who she adores, who has also escaped his background, he's escaped a French aristocratic background to come to New York and live as a gay man, live openly as a gay man, and he tells her to be ruthless.
FORNAAnd she does indeed become rather ruthless.
REHMVery, very important word. I want to invite our listeners to join the conversation. I can tell by the fact that there are no phone calls yet that you all are enjoying the conversation, but I do invite you to be part of it. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Again we are talking about a new novel from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Olive Kitteridge" and "The Burgess Boys," the new novel is "My Name is Lucy Barton." I promise you it's a book you're going to want to read. It's absolutely lovely.
REHMWhen we think about Lucy lying there for nine weeks and only five days is her mother there, to what extent is her husband there, or what is he off doing, Aminatta?
FORNAI think there's an authorial sleight of hand here. In order for the story to work, we have to -- the husband has to go, right.
HARDYMONHe has to be absent.
FORNAHe's got to be absent.
HARDYMONHe's must be absent, yes.
FORNAAnd so what Elizabeth Strout does is she puts Lucy Barton in a hospital, and not only does she give the husband two children to look after and a big job, but she also gives him a hatred of hospitals to make sure that he never comes near the place and that these two are left alone. Can I say something which occurred to me on the second reading? It has this dreamlike quality and this -- and fragmented stories, which of course the nature partly of the way these two are communicating and partly of how life is, and the mother's just there for five days.
FORNAAnd then what we haven't talked about is the mother suddenly, at a crucial point, says I'm leaving, I'm done.
FORNAShe suddenly says, I'm leaving, I'm done.
GOODHEARTJust before the surgery.
FORNAExactly, and I thought, was she ever there. Was she ever there? Because it feels like a hallucination, like it's been a long hallucination going on.
REHMWhat an interesting take.
GOODHEARTI did get the sense that it was like a series of nesting dolls, of story within story within story. Of course there's the story that Elizabeth Strout is telling herself, and then there's the story that Lucy Barton is telling, and there are the stories that the mother is telling her, and then there are people within those stories who are telling stories about their lives. And in fact while I was on my way into the studio, your colleague Allison at the front desk, who read this book with her book group, we got into an interesting conversation where she said, well, maybe this character Lucy Barton, who's a writer, is also making up all of this stuff, and maybe it's a story that she's writing herself. So there could be another layer...
FORNAThere's a lot of smoke and mirrors here.
REHMYou know, these...
GOODHEARTI thought that was a great insight, and I told Allison I'm going to say that on the air.
REHMYou know, are these -- are these conspiracy theories or what? I mean, that's very, very interesting.
HARDYMONWell, it's so interesting that she went from a book like "Olive Kitteridge," which is rooted -- I mean, that is -- it is a book that is about -- it's rooted in the earth to this -- to this really gossamer-like connection, which lends itself, because it does feel haunted. So it lends itself to the feeling that some of these people are ghosts, for instance the man in the hospital.
FORNAYeah, it feels like a dream.
HARDYMONYou know, the moment, you know, she sees the men walking down the street holding hands, it is populated by ghosts right down to the brother that we barely know.
REHMBarely, barely, barely.
HARDYMONWho is sleeping in the barn with the pigs. On that note...
REHMWe don't understand that at all. And you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. And we have a caller in Houston, Texas. Let's go to Sherry. You're on the air.
SHERRYHi Diane, thanks for taking my call.
SHERRYAll your guests are so articulate. I can understand why nobody is calling in because they are so interesting.
SHERRYI love that part. But my question is to them, mother-daughter relationships are interesting, as all familiar relationships are, but how did they experience -- how is this book different? I've listened to some of the ghost-like quality, you know, this writing is so beautiful, but how did they experience it like -- like oh, I could see myself this way, or oh, I could see life in a different way. if they could address that question, and I'll just go ahead and hang up. Thanks, guys.
FORNAOne of the things I loved about the book was that there was a reality to it. So it has this dreamlike quality, but then something else happens, which is that the mother is never really quite able to rise to her daughter's expectations. And so the way I related to it is that we are all flawed as daughters, as mothers, as parents. And sometimes actually you're simply not going to get that. You're not going to get the perfect mother. And the mother does this extraordinary thing. She walks out at the point when Lucy's going back into another operation and really needs her there.
FORNAAnd so from that moment on, Lucy starts to become more of her own person. And I think there's a sense of acceptance in this book, which I really liked, that we don't always get the perfect childhood, and we make what we can from it.
REHMAbsolutely. Let's go to Charlotte, North Carolina. Ann, you're on the air.
ANNYes, thank you for taking my call, Diane.
ANNI have read the book, and I was left wanting more for sure because -- just because of the writing style of Elizabeth. I will say I don't think you all have spoken much about the relationship that Lucy had with her husband, and I think it sort of parallels that relationship in some ways of that that she had or did not have with her mother. And I'll take your comments off the air?
REHMHow so? How so? Spell that out, Ann, how so?
ANNHow so was she lacking? Well, wanting more. And I think just by the mere fact that her husband -- I did not feel in reading the book that he was very present, particularly when she was in the hospital.
REHMAll right, certainly that.
HARDYMONYou know, I will say, I think -- and Aminatta said this, as well, Aminatta, excuse me, I think there is a -- he is the palest of the figures. In fact the doctor is a much more present male figure.
REHMOh my gosh is he important, yeah.
HARDYMONHe is this truly paternal moment of kindness, and yet -- and if there is -- you can look at it as a flaw or as an authorial sleight of hand, as you said, which is that that relationship, because it is -- she is maybe not as solid a relationship as it is a way for her to get where she needs to go and also where Elizabeth Strout needs us to go, which is -- yes.
REHMWell, but it's also the healing touch, the healing human touch that she felt from that doctor.
HARDYMONOh, when he kisses the fist, I died.
REHMExactly that perhaps she has never felt from another human being. We've got to take a short break here, and when we come back, we'll take more of your calls, your comments. I look forward to hearing from you.
REHMWelcome back. The book that we've chosen for this month's Readers' Review, Elizabeth Strout's new novel. It's titled, "My Name is Lucy Barton." Here in the studio with me, Aminatta Forna. She's the author of several novels, including, "The Memory of Love," and the memoir, "The Devil That Danced on the Water." She's a visiting professor at Georgetown University. Adam Goodheart is with the Washington College. Barrie Hardymon is books editor at "Weekend Edition," and a guest panelist on NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast.
REHMHere's an email from Carolyn, who says, "I loved the book and all its twists, turns and emotional discoveries. But the abrupt end made me so mad. I was so into the character, when it stopped I was sad. I read it on my Kindle and thought I was missing some chapters, only to find out I had the whole thing. I hated to see it end." That's a sign of a good novel. Don't you think?
FORNAThat's right. Yes, absolutely.
REHMRead for us a bit, would you, Aminatta, from -- and set it up for us, if you would.
FORNAWell, Lucy Barton has a relationship. One of her first relationships is with a professor of hers at college. He's an artist. And this man is a little bit of a snob. He makes her feel -- he's the first person, actually, in her adult life who makes her feel that she is wanting. Her poverty, the poverty in which she grew up, the way that she dresses. And he's the person who makes a cruel joke when she tells him that her family mostly ate baked beans.
FORNAI mean, they ate them because they couldn't afford them. But she, in a way, doesn't even see that. There's an innocence about here. And when it finally dawns on her what her relationship with this man, you know, what the framework of it is, she says, "I have said before, it interests me in how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people. It happens everywhere and all the time. Whatever we call it, I think it's the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down."
REHMThat's a great passage. All right. Let's go to the phone, to Ellen, in Louisville, Ky. You're on the air.
ELLENI just wanted to say I think what great writers do not -- is not only write well, but they bring insight into the human condition. Like the quote that was just given about how people treat each other or the really devastating portrait of loneliness that she paints here. And, you know, when she said things like "when strangers were kind to her she fell in love with them." It was something I could relate to immediately.
REHMThat's really a good point.
GOODHEARTThere is another moment that stood out for me in the book towards the beginning that's very beautiful. She's talking about walking through the streets of New York and feeling so lonely there that sometimes she would walk into a clothing store and ask a stranger about the sweater she was seeing. And then Strout writes, "This must be the way most of us maneuver through the world, half knowing, half not, visited by memories that can't possibly be true.
GOODHEART"But when I see others walking with confidence down the sidewalk, as though they are completely free from terror, I realize I don't know how others are. So much of life seems speculation."
REHMBut that is how she met Sarah Payne.
HARDYMONYes, yes. Which is the moment that -- this is such an only connect moment, right? It is the -- in order for her to become who she is, she has to have those moments, you know, that we all have. Right? You know, when you are in the checkout line and you simply must talk to the person behind you because you are maybe having some untold moment of loneliness. But in this moment when she goes into the clothing store, she meets this wonderful writer, who will then become her mentor and tell her that she must speculate. And in that speculation there will be honesty. Which is the sort of -- the interesting thing.
REHMAbsolutely. You know, most of us at one time or another, or all the time, are lonely. But I wonder specifically about the loneliness of the writer. Are writers more lonely or do they need to be more internal, which is different from loneliness.
GOODHEARTWe're told that, really. There is this man, Jeremy, who's literally a psychologist of writing. He's a psychiatrist in New York who says that he treats artists and writers. And he's the great friend of Lucy who lives in the same building, the one that Aminatta mentioned, who's escaped from his own family in France. And he tells her you have to be ruthless if you're going to be an artist. And this word ruthless appears again and again in the book. It felt very central to me. And I found myself, as I turned the word over in my mind, thinking about Ruth being contained in this word and the story of Ruth from the Bible.
GOODHEARTWhich, even though ruthless has nothing to do technically with that, it seemed to me to really echo. And I actually wrote down the famous passage from the Book of Ruth, where, of course, Naomi is speaking to her mother-in-law. I'm sorry, Ruth is speaking to her mother-in-law, Naomi. And they've gone through terrible things together as a family.
GOODHEARTBut she says, "Where you go, I will go. And where you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God, my God. Where you die, I will die and there I will be buried." And that's just the opposite, in terms of a family relationship, of so much that happens in this novel.
REHMIn this novel.
GOODHEARTAnd yet, she's told that's what she needs to be as an author.
HARDYMONBut what's so fascinating about it, I think, is that this writer and what Sarah Payne tells her, and actually what Elizabeth Strout has said about writing, is that what you must be doing is listening to everybody's stories. And this book contains the story of Lucy Barton, the story of this marvelous doctor, the story of her family, the story of these domestic moments with the women. So in order to do this -- and I, you know, we spoke about, you know, Elizabeth Strout herself has -- actually didn't have this kind of experience growing up.
HARDYMONSo what she did was actually the opposite of internal. She went out and harvested, for lack of a better word, the experiences of others. So I wonder that this is actually not that internal a writer. Do you know what I mean?
FORNANo. I mean, I'm never lonely as a writer 'cause I'm surrounded by dozens of people who don't exist. They're with me all the time. But a level of detachment is necessary. And I think that's what we're talking about when we talk about loneliness or aloneness. A level of detachment is necessary. And that's what Elizabeth Strout captures so well. Is that Lucy Barton looks at her life from the outside, almost.
FORNAShe sees herself as a character in her own life. And I think that's, in the end -- and I was joking surrounding yourself by people who don't exist, but in the end she finds herself in her writing. She manages to make those worlds ad sensibilities meet.
REHMIs there any fear during the reading of this novel that Lucy Barton is not going to live?
HARDYMONOh, no. I think we know because she knows -- she does say that we are, I mean, that's right. I mean, she says that we are in the middle of the story at the beginning. You know, she says it's 1980, you know, we're in the middle of the AIDS crisis. And then she makes reference to other things that…
HARDYMONI mean, that's actually -- which is part -- one of the brilliant things about the structure.
HARDYMONIs that she's -- that this is a moment, but it's also the beginning of her novel. I mean, she embeds all of these -- I keep talking about Muriel Spark, but this -- there is also -- there is a review of this book embedded within the book.
FORNAIt's what we call the now.
FORNAAnd although, it's quite easy to miss because she flips in and out of -- fleets in and out of timelines.
FORNAThe now is actually some years after this event. And she's looking back at it.
GOODHEARTIt's history, really. And I thought it was very revealing that towards the end of the book she talks about years later watching 9/11 on television with her daughter. And so there's a sense that here's another crisis that's going to deform families, deform the cities.
REHMLet's go to Brian, in Charlotte, N.C. You're on the air.
BRIANWell, I'm a lonely albeit detached author. And I have a structural question for you. I love the discussion, by the way. And, Diane, I've been listening to you for decades. And just really -- and first time I've ever called in.
REHMI'm glad to have you.
BRIANMy first novel was linear. So it was basically the way the publishers want a book to be written. And my second and third manuscripts are -- have all those subplots you've been talking about, all the ghosts, all the levels, all the -- and it's gone from 140,000 words to 250,000 words on the second one and 280,000 words on the third one. So it's sort of an archer type of novels. And hopefully have those published in the next couple of years.
BRIANBut I constantly question myself whether I should write -- go ahead and write as myself and write with those layers and everything. And I'm just really intrigued and look forward to reading these works.
REHMSo tell me exactly how you would pose your question.
BRIANWell, it -- from a style standpoint, obviously she's a prolific writer. Has her style changed? And do you like the way it's changed from one book to another? And I don't even know how long the book is, how long…
REHMIt's very short.
REHMYeah, go ahead, Aminatta.
FORNAWell, I was -- I'm a structure geek 'cause I love to think about structure when I write. And I love to look at how other writers approach structure. And what's happened here is that Elizabeth Strout has written Lucy Barton as if it were a memoir. She has not written as if it were a novel. She's written it as if it were a memoir. Although, it is, of course, a novel. And memoirs are necessarily episodic because you are only able to rely on memories. And so that's how she's put this together.
FORNAAnd then she's given it this -- what might stop your next book turning into 250,000 words is what she's done is she's very cleverly given it this five-day framework. And that's who she's managed to hone it down into something that is slim and manageable and gives you so much and yet takes so little time.
GOODHEARTBut it has an epic feel to it still. All of these stories and stories and stories. It's like a condensed epic, yeah, over time.
FORNABecause it's through the decades. It's decades (unintelligible) into five days.
GOODHEARTAnd she even writes -- the book starts with the words, "There was a time and it was many years ago now." So…
GOODHEART…it's sort of once upon a time, this is going to be a fable or a fairytale almost.
HARDYMONAnd yet it also feels very much like this is the beginning, that you are reading a kind of pre-novel of Lucy Barton's novel. That this was maybe the draft she was sending to the -- because she's always talking about the starting of a thing, that this is -- and so at the end, which what -- which is what may have frustrated one of those listeners is it has that feeling of this is the beginning, you know. The end is also the beginning.
REHMShe says -- and by the way, the book is about 191 pages long. She says, at the end, Chrissy, her daughter, said not long ago, about the husband I have now, "'I love him, Mom. But I hope he dies in his sleep. And then my stepmom can die, too. And you and Dad will get back together.' I kissed the top of her head, I thought, I did this to my child. Do I understand that hurt my children feel? I think I do, though they might claim otherwise.
REHM"But I think I know so well the pain we children clutch to our chest. How it lasts a whole lifetime with longings so large you can't even weep. We hold it tight, we do, with each seizure of the beating heart, this is mine, this is mine, this is mine." It's an extraordinary book. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Caroline, here in Washington, D.C. You're on the air.
CAROLINEThanks, Diane. And you will so be missed this year and such an amazing career. Just a quick comment. I'm so frustrated by Lucy because there's so much that we don't know about her. You know, we -- her past is intimated, which seems horrific. But we really don't know what that is. And, you know, she holds these very bitter feelings for her mom, but we don't know why. So who is this person?
HARDYMONOh, it's so interesting that you say that. I think so much that she's somebody I want to know and that I wished lived in my building, you know. I mean, she is a woman who is figuring out the world based on her relationships and believes that in loving imperfectly we can still love.
REHMBut the childhood experiences never leave her.
HARDYMONNo. And that's -- and I guess the thing I really love about that is that this is the way we experience people. Right? This is, you know, the friend that you know one or two moments of their childhood about. You don't know the whole memoir, right? This is how we experience people, in just the moment. Oh, she lost her mother at a young age.
HARDYMONOh, she grew up and, you know, she was wealthy, she was poor, she was -- we know moments about it. And yet, she still makes her feel like an incredibly solid character that I, you know, I can see. I can Lucy Barton shuffling down the street after she's lost all that weight, you know. So for me, the subtlety of the way that that's drawn and then the moments, as I said, of these crucial moments where we see the moments of horror, are enough for me to see this woman as a real person. She's, for me, the only person that is not a ghost.
REHMAs a mother I can say very frankly that looking back I wish I could do it all over again. I wish I could not make the mistakes that I made, but my children I revere and are wonderful young people, but there are always mistakes. And Lucy Barton's mother, I believe, was there for those five days, in reality, in attempt in a tiny way to atone for those mistakes.
FORNAWe've talked a lot about what wasn't said between Lucy and her mother. But we haven't talked about what was said. And actually several times Lucy says I love you. And her mother says I love you. So for all the mistakes the mother made, which were significant.
FORNASignificant. They do get to this moment where they say I love you, I love you. So…
HARDYMONAnd also I think it's so clever, as you've just read, that we know that Lucy Barton has made mistakes because it is impossible, I hope -- I'm not able to say as a parent -- it is impossible not to make those mistakes. And in the mistake there is buried love, that's the deal.
REHMBarrie Hardymon, she's books editor at "Weekend Edition," a guest panelist on NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. Adam Goodheart is at Washington College. He's the author of "1861: The Civil War Awakening." Aminatta Forna is visiting professor at Georgetown University, author of "The Memory of Love," and a memoir, "The Devil That Danced on the Water." Thank you all so much.
GOODHEARTThank you so much, Diane.
FORNAThank you. (unintelligible) such a lot of fun.
HARDYMONThank you, Diane.
REHMAnd thanks all for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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