Elizabeth Strout has written a gentle book with no real plot or movement except back and forth in time. A young mother and writer is hospitalized for many weeks with a serious but undiagnosed illness. At her husband’s request, her estranged mother comes to stay with her–in her hospital room. She’s there 24 hours a day, refusing the cot she is offered, refusing to leave, or to sleep. This visit—the only way her mother seems capable of saying, “I love you,” –brings up painful memories of the unhealthy, dysfunctional family they shared. Lucy realizes “… how our roots were twisted so tenaciously around one another’s hearts.”
While there, the mother relates stories of other people’s unhappy marriages, seemingly unaware of her own. Lucy reflects, “I have said before: It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person, another group of people. It happens everywhere, and all the time. Whatever we call it, I think it’s the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down.”
“Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the cervices of my mouth, reminding me.”
When her mother-in-law reminds her that she “comes from nothing,” it rankles her. “But I think: No one in this world comes from nothing.” Indeed, the “nothing” others may see is the stuff from which we create our lives. Nothing isn’t nothing.
School and books save Lucy. As she writes her novel, her mentor assures her, “You will have only one story… You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one.” Her advice is to go “… to the page with a heart as open as the heart of God.” And she does.
While Strout’s writing is poignant and evocative, I was left wanting more of a pay-off or big reveal. I remember having similar thoughts when I read Olive Kittridge. Have you read either of these? What did you think? Is there enough here to make a good story?