The Sound of Silence

Claire Messud in The New York Times:

MessudOne of this nation’s most abiding myths is that social origins don’t matter. Each of us is Gatsby, or can be, with the potential to be reinvented and obliterate the past. This is nowhere more true than in New York City, where, surrounded by millions, each person supposedly stands upon his or her own merits. If we reach a sophisticated urban consensus on how to speak, how to dress, how to live, then who will know what lies beneath the surface? Who will know what any one of us might really mean by words like “home,” “childhood” or “love”? Elizabeth Strout is a writer bracingly unafraid of silences, her vision of the world northern, Protestant and flinty. “Olive Kitteridge,” her ­Pulitzer Prize-winning collection of linked stories, gives life to a woman both fierce and thwarted, hampered in her passions at once by rage and a sense of propriety. The narrator of Strout’s powerful and melancholy new novel, “My Name Is Lucy Barton,” might be a distant relation of Olive’s, though she is raised in poverty outside the small town of Amgash, Ill., rather than in Maine, and her adult home, where most of the novel takes place, is in Manhattan.

Lucy is a writer — words are her vocation — and yet she, like Olive, hovers at the edge of the sayable, attempting to articulate experiences that have never been and, without the force of her will, might never be expressed. She says she decided in the third grade to be a writer after reading about a girl named Tilly, “who was strange and unattractive because she was dirty and poor.” Books “brought me things,” she explains. “They made me feel less alone. This is my point. And I thought: I will write and people will not feel so alone!” Lucy Barton’s story is, in meaningful ways, about loneliness, about an individual’s isolation when her past — all that has formed her — is invisible and incommunicable to those around her. Like the fictional Tilly, she endured a childhood of hardship, shunned even by her Amgash classmates, living in a world incomprehensible to her adult friends in New York. Not only did the family have little heat and little food, they had no books, no magazines and no TV: There was a lot for Lucy to catch up on.

More here.