Tag Archives: Elizabeth Strout

MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON by Elizabeth Strout

I am a big fan of Elizabeth Strout’s; I read a few of her novels before she won the 2009 Pulitzer for Olive Kitteridge, including Amy and Isabelle (pre-blogging) and Abide With Me, and I was really looking forward to her latest, My Name Is Lucy Barton. It was well-reviewed by critics and Goodreads readers, so I bumped it up the TBR list this winter. Unfortunately, when I finished it, I was left wondering what I had missed.

My Name Is Lucy Barton is about a woman in her late 20s living in New York City in the 80s who develops a mysterious illness after an appendectomy. She ends up spending nine weeks in the hospital in a mostly feverish state as her doctors try to figure out what’s wrong with her. Her husband is busy with work and their two young daughters, so Lucy spends a lot of time on her own in her hospital room. One day, she looks up to find her mother sitting in the room – a woman she hasn’t seen in many years and from whom she is basically estranged.

Most of the book relates what Lucy and her mother talk about during the week her mother spends by her side. Lucy’s family was very poor when she was growing up, and her parents were cold, withholding people who rarely showed affection or love to their children. Her father fixed farm machinery, and her mother took in sewing. Lucy and her siblings never had much, and were often embarrassed at school by their clothes and appearance. Lucy worked hard and earned a scholarship to college, and from there lived her own life, getting married and having children, with little contact with her family.

Lucy is very surprised to see her mother in her hospital room, and the two women spend most of their time together talking about people they knew in their small Illinois town. Divorces, scandals, tragedies – Lucy’s mother is most comfortable relating the misfortunes of other people, rather than addressing her own behavior as a mother and her relationship with Lucy. And Lucy doesn’t press the issue. She turns into a little girl again in her mother’s presence, calling her “Mommy” and becoming the unassertive, passive child she was in Illinois. Ultimately, nothing is really resolved between the two of them. Whenever Lucy inches toward something uncomfortable – raising a painful memory or questioning her mother’s distance over the years – her mother basically shuts down and changes the subject. Lucy knows her mother cares about her, as evidenced by her getting on a plane for the first time and flying to be by her side, but her mother still shows little affection.

My Name Is Lucy Barton meanders its way to its end. Strout’s writing, which I admired in the past for its spare elegance, is repetitive, with sentences literally repeating themselves with a word or two reversed. The conversations between Lucy and her mother meander, and the chapters that take place in the present meander too, with Lucy jumping from topic to topic, memory to memory. I got really frustrated with the writing as I made my way through My Name Is Lucy Barton – I think it needed a good edit.

I appreciate the book’s treatment of messy, unresolved relationships, and the way that a lack of resolution and clarity can eat at you over the years. But other than that, I didn’t take away much from My Name Is Lucy Barton. Lucy was passive and seemed emotionally detached from her own life at times, perhaps a symptom of the cold childhood she endured. But she was sort of frustrating to follow as a reader.

I listened to My Name Is Lucy Barton on audio. It was narrated by Kimberly Farr, and I think she did a decent job with the material. Her narration took on a meandering quality, like the book, and she gave life to a rather passive character. She was good at conveying when Lucy felt lonely and sad, and her voice inspired empathy. Her narration enhanced my enjoyment of the book.


Top 10 Favorite Audiobooks

JuneHeaderIn honor of June is Audiobook Month (JIAM), I’ve decided to share a list of my favorite audiobooks. This was hard! There are a lot of good ones out there. If you haven’t tried an audiobook before, here are a few you might want to try.

1. Three Junes by Julia Glass. What I said: “The narrator, John Keating, was nearly perfect. I loved his brogue and his Fenno was wonderful.”

2. A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash. What I said: “The three performers -Nick Sullivan, Lorna Raver, and Mark Bramhall – were absolutely perfect; I felt like I was listening to a script reading. The voice of Clem, in particular, was superb. This may be the best audio production I’ve ever listened to.”

3. Abide With Me by Elizabeth Strout. What I said: “The performer, Bernadette Dunne, had the accents down perfectly and really imbued the voices with personality and character. She brought Strout’s words to life so convincingly that at times I felt as though the characters were in the room with me. This is one of the best audiobook narrations I’ve listened to, ever.”

4. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson. What I said: “[T]he narration by Peter Altschuler is one of the best I’ve ever experienced. Great delivery and perfect accents. Mrs. Ali was the weak link, the errant thread of the Turkish rug. But the others were great.”

5. A Good American by Alex George. What I said: “The audio is terrific. Great narrator – Gibson Frazier. In fact, I think it was the audio version that kept me interested – I am not sure I would have stuck with this book if I hadn’t been listening to it.”

6. Faith by Jennifer Haigh. What I said: “The narrator, Therese Plummer, has a perfect Boston accent, and she vividly brought Faith‘s characters, male and female, to life. The audiobook forced me to ingest this novel more slowly than if I had read it, prolonging the pleasure of experiencing the book.”

7. State of Wonder by Ann Patchett: What I said: “Hope Davis is an excellent narrator. She conveys a range of voices perfectly – from Marina’s terror brought on by drug-induced nightmares to the infallible tone of Dr. Swenson.”

8. The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris. What I said: “I highly recommend the audio. It was narrated by Ferris, and he’s a great reader. I love listening to authors read their own works – who understands the words better than they do? Who else knows exactly where the emphasis lands in a sentence, and the tone of voice a character should take when talking to someone else?”

9. The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta. What I said: “It didn’t hurt that I listened to this book on audio narrated by the sublime Campbell Scott. I wouldn’t complain if he narrated every single audiobook in the library. His deep voice, which verges on (but never reaches) flatness, was the perfect vehicle for Perrotta’s understated sarcasm and jabs. I especially enjoyed Scott’s narration of Pastor Dennis – just perfect.”

And finally, the audiobook that got me into audiobooks…

10. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. What I said: “This book is narrated by Kristoffer Tabori, an accomplished actor, and I give him credit for embodying so many diverse voices throughout the 21 hours of Middlesex. His narration is fluid and vibrant, his voice highly capable of conveying the range from humor to desperation. To me, the weak link was his female voices, especially that of Cal’s grandmother Desdemona, who bordered on caricature. But this is a minor complaint. There were times when I was tempted to read ahead in my print copy of Middlesex, but I developed a strong appreciation for and loyalty to Tabori as I was reading, and felt that it would be betraying him NOT to experience every word through his narration.”

What are your favorite audiobooks? Please share them!

ABIDE WITH ME by Elizabeth Strout

I’ve read a number of books in recent memory set in Maine – Red Hook Road, Maine, Olive Kitteridge – and this month added Elizabeth Strout’s Abide With Me to the mix. Maine is a good setting for a novel, with its long, unforgiving winters; its sturdy, unsentimental citizens; and its disdain for the fancy summer people from Massachusetts. Each of those play a role in Abide With Me, which is about Tyler Caskey, a young minister, who settles in a rural Maine town with his wife Lauren in the late 1950s. Lauren is a materialistic young woman who is uninterested in religion, and feels trapped and bored in West Annett, while Tyler is trying to build up a congregation and meet the needs of his community. Two little daughters are born, and then Lauren is diagnosed with cancer and passes away. Abide With Me is about Tyler’s grief and loneliness and the challenges he faces in raising his daughters and maintaining faith in God in the face of his loss. It is also about gossip and secrets, and the judgmental nature of small towns.

This is the third novel I have read by Elizabeth Strout (in addition to Amy and Isabelle and Olive Kitteridge) and once again I was struck by the power of her spare, unemotional writing. The book progressed a little slowly at times, but I like the way Strout dipped and weaved among different characters and subplots, as well as her slow teasing out of backstories. There is a lot of pain and sadness here, and Strout doesn’t shy away from it, especially where Tyler’s daughter Katherine is concerned. Strout adeptly conveys the loneliness and frankly the boredom in these small town lives, and the silent resentments and fury that builds up between spouses over time.

The ending was a little pat, and I could have done without some of the religious discussion throughout the book (particularly around a saint – or someone like a saint – that Tyler had read about and invoked in times of stress). But there was some good exploration of faith and forgiveness – and what role they each play when one has lost a loved one or has been wronged.

I listened to Abide With Me on audio and the narration was perfect. The performer,  Bernadette Dunne, had the accents down perfectly and really imbued the voices with personality and character. She brought Strout’s words to life so convincingly that at times I felt as though the characters were in the room with me. This is one of the best audiobook narrations I’ve listened to, ever.

OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout

Unwittingly, I read two books in a row that have a lot in common: Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout, and Cost, by Roxana Robinson (reviewed here). Both books are set along the Maine coast and center around a middle-aged female protagonist. Both books make short jaunts to Brooklyn. Both deal with painful mother-son relationships, as well as aging, infidelity, and other family dynamics. And both books explore terribly sad topics.

But that’s where the similarities end, because in many ways these two books could not be more different. While Cost essentially follows four days in a family’s life over the course of 300 pages, Olive Kitteridge is a loosely connected collection of stories about a town in Maine, with each chapter focusing on a different storyline and taking place over thirty or more years. Roxana Robinson is an incredibly detailed writer, while Elizabeth Strout is the master of understatement. Her writing is so spare, so economical, that if you inadvertently miss a sentence, you might miss an entire plot development.

Strout I was a little late to the Olive Kitteridge bandwagon. While I have had the book for quite a while (FTC disclosure: I think it was a review copy, though I can’t remember), I just didn’t get to it until now. And of course, in the interim, it won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for literature.  But now that I’ve read it, I am really glad that I did. I don’t always love short story collections, because I find them somewhat unsatisfying and often forgettable. But Olive Kitteridge avoids that pitfall, mostly because of the title character. She is a thread running through each of the stories, even the ones in which she appears only briefly. But she offers context and somehow makes the book cohere in a way that short story collections often don’t.

I also love the way Strout tells stories. Her spare writing, combined with her slow teasing out of plot, makes Olive Kitteridge a very compelling read. I felt myself wanting to forge ahead, to start the next chapter, just to see what was going to happen. While there is a lot of tragedy in Olive Kitteridge (something terrible happens to someone in pretty much every chapter), it’s not a horribly depressing book. It’s realistic, and sad in its commentary about the passages of life, but it’s still a very good book.

I think what I liked most about Olive Kitteridge is that Strout writes without judgment, accepting her characters as they are and, in the process, making her readers sympathetic to them, flaws and all.  Her book is ultimately about the human condition and its fragility, and the moments that make up – and end – lives.

Guest Review: OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout

Thank you to EDIWTB reader Nancy West for this guest review of Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout. I’ve not read this book yet, but I want to.

Olive Several years ago, my book group discussed Ian McEwan’s novel Enduring Love. At one point, someone brought up the title: presumably it was an adjectival construction referring to love that endures, but was it possibly a word play meant also to draw upon the present participle – as in “How do we go about enduring love?”

Probably not, we decided; it seemed unlikely that the author of such a complex character-driven novel intended to distract readers (or book groups) with a clever word play, and we moved on quickly to a discussion of the novel itself. It is a long literary leap from the unforgettable page-turner by the highly acclaimed British novelist to Strout’s collection of interconnected stories about hard-on-their-luck folks in a midsized, rundown town in coastal Maine, but I found myself thinking back often to that earlier discussion. Strout’s book could indeed be called Enduring Love, drawing upon both meanings – because although the stories are ostensibly linked by the fact that they either center around Olive Kittredge herself or people with some connection, however specious, to the title character, the theme that truly connects the stories is how any of them, or presumably how any of us, endure love, as it grows old and complicated and tedious and distractible and… and on and on. Husbands endure obnoxious wives; wives endure cheating husbands. A young woman attempts to endure in a promising relationship despite the inescapable memories of her childhood; another young woman’s endurance is tested by her own self-destructiveness. An adolescent wonders if she can endure the peculiarities of her parents, peculiarities that drive her beloved older sister out of the house. Olive and Henry Kittredge endure the emotional fallout of being random victims of a horrendous crime; another couple their age has less success with endurance after crime rips their domestic life apart – because in their case, their child is the perpetrator. In one of the most interesting plot threads, Olive’s enduring love for her son is tested and tested again, with uncertain results.

Some survive; some do not. Perhaps the most compelling example of endurance, though, is the reader’s enduring affection for Olive. Though many others in this Maine harbor town find her to be odious, omniscient viewpoint enables us to understand her as they cannot, and to appreciate her as few can. Ultimately, we find ourselves rooting for nearly every character in this collection, hoping against fairly high odds that they can all survive, and endure, and that the love around which their lives are centered can somehow endure along with them.

Thanks again for the post, Nancy!

OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout

OK, I feel old. Some authors that I featured in the earlier days of this blog already have another book out, since the last time I wrote about them. And of course, I still haven’t read the first book I discussed.

Back in February 2007, I wrote about Elizabeth Strout’s book Abide With Me. I had read and enjoyed an earlier book by Strout called Amy and Isabelle, and thought that Abide With Me also looked good. Well, Strout has a third book out called Olive Kitteridge which is a collection of interconnected stories that, like her other books, takes place in a small New England town.

It was just reviewed by Entertainment Weekly. Here is the review:

StroutThe interconnected stories in Elizabeth Strout’s new book, Olive Kitteridge, follow small-town Maine folk, particularly the stolid, blunt schoolteacher of the title and her husband, Henry, the amiable local druggist. The tales meander with them through the years, weathering their attractions to other people; the adolescence and marriage of their son, Christopher; and finally Henry’s illness.

Sometimes the couple are at the center of the action; at other times, they hover on the fringes. Strout, thrifty as any Down Easter, conveys their marriage in the sparest language possible. When Henry wants to invite Denise, his young employee, for dinner, Olive tells him, ”Not keen on it.” But when he does so anyway — he has a crush on her — the tenuousness of their marriage surfaces in this exchange: ”For dessert they were each handed a blue bowl with a scoop of vanilla ice cream sliding in its center. ‘Vanilla’s my favorite,’ Denise said. ‘Is it,’ said Olive. ‘Mine, too,’ Henry Kitteridge said.”

Through all her passive aggression, Olive emerges as an opinionated and often sad woman who imagines her own depression as ”a thing inside me…sometimes it swells up like the head of a squid and shoots blackness through me.” Her father committed suicide, and now Christopher suffers the same dark moodiness. The scene at his wedding, when Olive overhears the bride and her mother denigrating her dress, just might break your heart. Rarely does a story collection pack such a gutsy emotional punch. A

Any Strout readers out there?

ABIDE WITH ME by Elizabeth Strout

I read Elizabeth Strout’s debut novel Amy and Isabelle a few years ago for a book club. I remember liking it, not loving it. It’s the story of an estranged mother and adolescent daughter living in New England sometime in the past… the daughter has fallen in love with her cad of a math teacher, her single mother has a big secret from her past that she’s never told her daughter, and the residents of their small town like to gossip about both of them. Not a bad book.

StroutStrout’s second novel, Abide with Me, looks like it takes some of those same themes — single parenthood, small towns, secrets — but explores them more deeply and with more substance.  It’s the story of Tyler, a recently-widowed minister struggling to raise two small daughters, and how his loss and inability to cope force him to question his faith and his calling.  From the Washington Post review:

Dark as much of this beautiful novel is, there’s finally healing here, and, as Tyler should have known, it comes not from strength and self-sufficiency but from accepting the inexplicable love of others. In one beautiful page after another, Strout captures the mysterious combination of hope and sorrow. She sees all these wounded people with heartbreaking clarity, but she has managed to write a story that cradles them in understanding and that, somehow, seems like a foretaste of salvation.

More magazine calls it a "wise" book.  From the San Francisco Chronicle:

Strout continues her astute and moving explorations into the curious nature of human beings in her second novel, Abide With Me. She offers another rich, communal portrait of a small town, with its petty, hurtful gossip offset by the astonishing power of kindness and friendship…. Strout tackles "serious stuff" in Abide With Me — including delicate moral distinctions between euthanasia, suicide and abortion. Like Amy and Isabelle, her second novel radiates a humane, life-affirming warmth even after acknowledging that it is a "sad world." Abide With Me is a book to curl up with on a bleak day, a book that isn’t embarrassed to assert that "where there are people, there is always the hope of love."

I also just searched through a number of blog posts on this book and they were almost all positive, though several note that the book is depressing. (What else is new?) 

Has anyone read this book?