I’m starting my series of posts about this year’s Booker Prize longlist with a double review as I squeezed in Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton before reading Oh William!. The books don’t have to be read in order though they are connected by a shared main character and narrator, the titular Lucy Barton who elaborates the complicated relationship to her mother in the earlier book and writes about her ex-husband in the new publication. Though really she mainly talks about herself and how hard the world has been to her in both books.
In the first book Lucy Barton is in hospital, recovering from mysterious complications after a minor surgery when her mother unexpectedly come to visit even though they had not talked to each other in years. Their conversations remain tense and distant but their reminiscences of scenes and people from their shared past make Lucy revisit painful memories of her impoverished and abusive childhood and her escape from rural Illinois to find success in New York. These flashbacks are interspersed with anecdotes about Lucy’s life and friends, the people she adopted as guides and teachers that she could not find in her family, and with observations about what it means to love and especially to love someone who cannot love you back. My Name is Lucy Barton is a story of silences and loneliness and about how we grow from pain. Sounds right up my street, but wow, it really wasn’t. I found Lucy’s voice unbearable. She is written as childish and helpless and often annoying. Considering that everyone else seems to love this book it must me my reading that is mistaken, but I struggled to get through this short novel. Strout tried to explain too much for my taste, creating the impression that our narrator constantly felt the need to justify herself – which might be the case, but was not pleasant to read. I wrote in my notebook '191 pages of self-pity' and if that is something you enjoy reading, this book might be great for you (I write this completely unironically!) Lucy Barton is not a bad book, I just really did not like her.
Unfortunately, Lucy is also what links this book to Oh William! This recent book is set several decades after Lucy Barton, who has recently lost her second husband and is an acclaimed author of several books. William was her first husband, the father of her children, now in his seventies and nearing the end of his scientific career. Oh William! is about marriage with all its highs and lows. The ex-spouses are still close friends and William asks Lucy to help her in an endeavour to learn more about his own family history which involves Nazi wealth and secret children (spoiler?). Again, the books is mainly about Lucy herself and all the ways in which she seems inadequate but ends up doing rather well in life. Her tone has not changed much from one book to the next and so my enjoyment of this was not much greater than of the first novel. The beginning was slow and boring, I was slightly more invested half way through, and the end ruined it for me. This might be one of the worst endings for a novel I have ever read. But what I found most frustrating about both books is how Strout portrayed women. Having read and loved Olive Kitteridge a few years ago, I did not expect to find female characters that read like stereotypes of insecure, and frankly stupid, little girls. I might have missed some important messages here, my reading could be completely off – but I cannot understand why this has been nominated and now even shortlisted for the Booker Prize.