Allow me to introduce you to Lucy Barton, the protagonist of Elizabeth Strout’s beautiful and poignant new novel. The reader meets Lucy as she is hospitalized and suffering from a mysterious, life threatening illness. Her husband is oddly absent, phobic about hospitals. Her two young daughters visit only occasionally with a nanny whose alliances are questionable. Lucy’s loneliness is palpable. Weeks into her hospital stay, her mother appears like a ghost, Lucy’s husband having flown her to be at Lucy’s side. During her mostly sleepless vigil, memories reveal themselves, and the reader learns about Lucy’s troubled, impoverished childhood, her passive mother and her mentally ill father. Lucy forms attachments to her kind doctor and to an author whom she meets randomly while shopping. These two become Lucy’s guides to healing and developing into her true self, ultimately acknowledging a dark secret. Every piece of information Strout offers is significant and fits together to complete a picture of a character who courageously redefines herself.
Strout is a master at subtle portrayals of complex, alienated characters and their realistically complicated relationships. Of the four I will cite here, I couldn’t choose my favorite, but they are all among the best books I’ve read.