Have you ever read a book that within the first few pages you sigh and settle deeper into your chair? A book that is so comforting, and sustaining, that reading it makes you feel like coming home? Maybe the book doesn’t have to be comforting right away. But reading it draws you into the lives of the characters so skillfully, that you feel as if you are having a conversation. With an old friend, or your mum, or someone close. And when you’re talking with someone that close, the conversation always feels like a homecoming.
I feel that when I read books by Elizabeth Strout. I love how how her stories ramble, and circle around, and edge forward almost sideways, like a crab. She deals with the present, reaches back into the past, and then moves the present forward again. Like a conversation with someone you know well, when you start off down one path, remember something from your past, or their past, or a shared past, and tell a story, which leads to another story, before circling back to the original topic. Except in real life you sometimes never do make it back to the original topic of conversation.
But in fiction, of course, the writer is in charge, and Elizabeth Strout always brings the plot back to her original topic. But with so much skill that it mimics real life. And the reader doesn’t even notice that they are being lead along.
I just finished Elizabeth Strout’s latest book Oh William! which I ordered months ago, and delayed and delayed reading. I wasn’t in the mood for a serious book, I told myself. It would make me sad, I told myself, and I wasn’t in the right frame of mind for that. So I read only mystery and crime for a long while. Until the other day. Gad. What was I thinking? I adored this book. Like I adored her last one. And the one before that. How silly of me to put off reading this wonderful book.
Oh William! continues the story of Strout’s character Lucy Barton. As the narrator, Lucy purports to be telling us the story of her first husband William. And of course she is. But she’s also continuing her own story. And the story of her and William’s marriage, and of their children. Oh William! is one of those rambling books, shuttling down the plotline sidewise, with numerous forays into Lucy’s past, and William’s past, and even the past of William’s mother. In it Elizabeth Strout explores themes of identity, as she often does. And the complex web of situations, heredity, and events from which our identity is formed. And how even when we think our adult identity is formed, and that we are far from who we were as children, we are never actually very far from the child that we once were.
Elizabeth Strout has three books featuring Lucy Barton as a character. The first book, My Name is Lucy Barton, starts with Lucy narrating the story of her long hospital stay when she was a young mother. And how William, her husband at the time, contacted Lucy’s mother, from whom she’d been estranged for many years, and flew her from the midwest to New York to be with Lucy in the hospital. For five days Lucy’s mother sits by her bed and they talk.
And in between Lucy narrates to the reader the story of her early life, her childhood, and her escape from poverty when she won a scholarship to a college in Chicago. College is the beginning of Lucy’s life, the beginning of her development as an adult, and as a writer. She says: “Oh, I loved that place immediately, silently, breathlessly!” Just like I loved this book right from the start. Just like I did Oh William!.
I think my favourite part of My Name is Lucy Barton is when Lucy is a child and stays at school long after everyone has gone home, so she can keep warm. A kindly janitor conspires to let her into empty classrooms where the radiators are still on, and she does her homework and reads books until she can no longer delay going home herself. And the part I love the best is when she says how much she loves books and wants to write books when she grows up: “the books brought me things. This is my point. They made me feel less alone. This is my point. And I thought: I will write and people will not feel so alone!”
My Name is Lucy Barton goes beyond the five days that Lucy’s mother sat by her side in the hospital. And far beyond the weeks she spends in the hospital. And in the book we are there with her as she comes to terms, as much as is possible, with her childhood, and with her parents. Viewing them down the lens of an adult instead of a child, but still retaining the feel of the pain felt by the child. It’s the most difficult of the three books to read because Lucy did have a dreadful childhood. But it’s a worthwhile read, I think.
The second Elizabeth Strout book in which we encounter Lucy Barton is Anything is Possible, which is a series of connected short stories about the people in Lucy Barton’s hometown of Amgash, Illinois. Lucy, who is a famous novelist by this time, is mentioned in several of the chapters, but appears herself in only one chapter of the book when she returns home to visit her sister and brother. I wrote about this book here, if you’re interested. I remember so clearly reading this book when I was at home with my mum. And such was the power of the book that I was loath to put it down even though Mum and I had things to do, tea to drink, Jane Austen movies to watch together, and many conversations to have.
Anyway. If you haven’t read these Elizabeth Strout books, I highly recommend them. As you’ve probably already guessed.
Oh William! set me off on a search the other night. A search for a family that I remembered from my childhood. They lived near us and several of the children rode with us on the school bus. I remember one red-headed girl a year or two older than me, an older brother, and a much younger one. I remember their names. The fact that they lived in an old house on a hill that we could barely see from the road, with no indoor plumbing. And the fact that they were dreadfully bullied at school. For having lice, for smelling bad, for whatever insults kids in the schoolyard could dream up.
I called my mum today to see if she remembered the family. She did. And I asked her if she remembered the day I came home from school and told her that no one would sit with the girl on the school bus. She did. Mum also remembered that, the next day, I sat with this girl. Because Mum had threatened me if I didn’t, she would find out, and I would be in trouble. She said this girl could not help her situation. And I was no better than she was, and I should never think otherwise.
Funny, I never, ever forgot that girl. And reading Oh William! made me remember that story. And thus, the other night, I went on a search across Google and Facebook to see if I could find that family. I won’t say anymore because I don’t want anyone to recognize whom I am speaking about. But the line “she came from nothing” in Strout’s novel resonated with me so strongly. And despite the fact that my own childhood was somewhat turbulent, and filled at times with anxiety, I know that I really did win the birth lottery.
That’s why I say reading Elizabeth Strout’s books make me feel like coming home. Because home for me is inextricably linked to stories. And story-telling. Because by telling stories and listening to stories we are seeking to know ourselves and each other.
You know, we’re all trying to navigate our lives as best we can. Trying to understand who we are. And why. Even as grown-ups. Even at age almost sixty-six. And it’s kind of wonderful to think that real-life author Elizabeth Strout achieves what the fictional girl Lucy Barton hoped to achieve. To write books and make people feel less alone.
Even as we know that what we are reading is fiction. And that as Strout says, “we do not know anybody, not even ourselves,” we keep trying to know. Telling our stories to each other. Reading stories, listening to stories. And recognizing that we are not alone in that unknowing.
And that makes me feel less alone.
Now, how about you, my friends? What nourishing books have you been reading lately? Does story-telling figure largely in your life?
P.S. The book links in this post are affiliate links. If you make a purchase after clicking my link, I will earn a commission which helps to pay for the blog.