This book has been everywhere, the last year or so, and I’m aware that I’m coming to it rather late. I found it a strange novel: sobering, yes, but also frustrating. It flirts with the promise of autobiography; shares selectively; and sometimes overshares when it would have had more impact to leave questions open. I suspect its themes of the bond between mothers and daughters is what has made it such a book group favourite, but the bond it holds out to us is a troubling one: threaded through with incomprehension, abuse, misery, anxiety and – only at the last – the possibility of compassion and comprehension.
Lucy Barton is in hospital in New York, struggling to recover after a routine appendix operation develops complications. She rarely sees her husband, who is working hard to keep her in her private room, and who in any case loathes hospitals; their interaction is usually limited to the telephone. She sees her two small daughters occasionally, brought in by a family friend. They are too young to understand why their mother isn’t at home, and worried by the medical apparatus that Lucy herself doesn’t quite understand. When she wakes one day to find her mother at the side of the bed, it initially seems to be the obvious solution for companionship. But Lucy and her mother haven’t been in contact for years. Her presence is a last-ditch solution by Lucy’s frantic husband, who has broken the rules of family estrangement and paid for her mother to fly here, to see Lucy.
In the five days that follow, Lucy and her mother sidle cautiously around the edge of their joint past. There are so many things that can’t be spoken of: Lucy’s deprived upbringing; her parents’ casual physical punishment; the haunting shadows of other things, too horrifying to be vocalised. And so they compromise by speaking of family friends and mutual acquaintances, tentatively finding their common ground by gossiping about the fates of those they used to know. With her pet-names and her calm, solid presence, Lucy’s mother implicitly allows her to be afraid, to feel fear of this vast, impersonal hospital, and to give up trying to be brave. Despite everything that has happened, every battle that Lucy has fought to leave her past behind, she finds an instinctive comfort in her mother’s company.
Woven in with this story of Lucy’s relationship with her mother is the tale of her growing confidence as a person, and her determination to put her story down in words. Three time-frames give us an overall picture of who Lucy Barton is: her childhood, in the past; the present, in the hospital; and the future, allowing us to see how her time in hospital affects her relationships with her family, and her growing reconciliation with herself.
I found some of the later sections a bit odd, namely those with the writer Sarah Payne, whose function seems to be to vindicate Lucy’s desire to use her own voice in her fiction. Yet Sarah Payne herself is exhausted and strained; hardly the epitome of success. What does this prove? That women must fight for the right for their stories to be heard? Are we supposed to contrast this articulate, educated, yet discontented writer with Lucy’s uneducated, self-conscious mother who is, despite her disadvantages, content – because she doesn’t have the imagination to conceive of anything else? Is that what we’re meant to take away from this? That one can never have everything: that personal expression demands sacrifice?
Maybe I should have read this as part of a book group, because I think discussion might have helped me tease out some of these questions. Overall, I thought that there was one big missed opportunity: how much more moving it might have been, if the presence of Lucy’s mother wasn’t explicitly literal – if we were never quite sure whether she was a dream, or an imagined entity, a way for her daughter to process and challenge her past! But maybe I’m missing something. I worry about that every time I fail to love a book that has had so much good press. Who else has read this? And what did you make of it? Is it a profound, instinctive exploration of family ties – or a story which never satisfyingly connects the young woman of its present with the haunted, abused child of its past?
Share your thoughts. Please!