I’ve been reading a lot of work this past month by Elizabeth Strout, known most famously for her novel-in-stories Olive Kitteridge.
The three works I’ve read seem to blend into one book. In the last that I read, My Name Is Lucy Barton, her new novel, one of the characters, a writing teacher tells her, “We all only have one story to tell,” and she goes on to say that we tell it, in many different, over and over and that’s okay. I felt this way with her recent work. It was all one story.
I began this journey without a plan; picking up the O. Henry Prize Stories 2015 collection and discovering her short story, “Snow Blind.” A rural, small town. A tightly knit family, the Applebys, and a terrible family secret. One of the children, Annie, ultimately does leave the small town, almost miraculously, becomes a star of screen and stage, but even she cannot totally leave behind her small town family and her history. I found a link to the story here: http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/public/stefg/article1509841.ece
I learned soon after reading this masterful short story that her novel, The Burgess Boys, was being made into a HBO mini-series, and realized I hadn’t read this book. It’s the story of two brothers, both lawyers, one more successful than the other in New York City. Along with their sister, who never left their small town in Maine, they harbor a deeply-held family secret. When the nephew does something stupid and terrible in the hometown, all breaks loose between the siblings. However, ultimately, (no spoilers here), the ties of the siblings to one another and to their history in that Maine village bind them to one another more than to anyone or anything else.
I then thought: I must read her new novel. In My Name Is Lucy Barton, the main character, nicknamed ‘Wizzle’ by her mother is very ill. She’s in a New York City Hospital (what I take to be Cornell Presbyterian, though it’s never named. There is a view of the famously art deco Chrysler Building and having spent a lot of time there in recent years, I can imagine the view of the building, glistening, in my mind’s eye). Her mother on her first visit to New York City, and the first visit between them in years. Staying at her sick bed for several days, the mother tells story after story, of people from their Illinois farm town and their impoverished life together. In many ways, My Name is Lucy Barton is a story about how stories heal us.
But at the end of my reading I thought: Can we never move far away enough to leave our family, our hometown, our dark family secrets, no matter how we try to re-make ourselves? The answer for the characters in these Strout stories is: no. We are bound to our family, our siblings, our towns. This is the essential story that gets told again and again in these works by Strout.
Have you ever spent time with an author and felt you knew their story?
PS you can always spend time with my newest young adult novel: BEFORE MY EYES!