The Mother-Daughter Narratives of Elizabeth Strout
Few, if any, human dynamics are simultaneously more strained and tender, more emotionally volatile and at ease, than those in a mother-daughter relationship. I speak from experience. For 54 years, I’ve been a daughter who grew up with two older sisters. For over 20 of those years, I’ve been the mother of two daughters, and more recently, with the birth of my daughter’s own two girls, I became a grandmother. At times, the mercurial intensity of these maternal bonds leaves me powerless to exist within them, and, as in all circumstances in which I seek relief, I turn to well-wrought fiction for comfort and wisdom.
Maine-born writer Elizabeth Strout has authored four novels, but she is best known for her Pulitzer Prize winning collection of short stories, Olive Kitteridge. I greatly admire Strout’s Maine stories—both individually and as a powerful whole—but in this dual review, I will focus on two of Strout’s novels, her 1998 debut, Amy and Isabelle, and her most recent book, My Name is Lucy Barton (2016), and how reading both novels made each of them more appealing. In each, the mother-daughter relationship is the crux of the narrative. Amy and Isabelle is a coming-of-age story featuring a teenage daughter, while My Name is Lucy Barton addresses the dynamics between an adult daughter and her aging mother in present time, textured by childhood flashbacks.
Each narrative excavates the complexity inherent to the mother-daughter relationship. The four main characters grapple with the dark side of the past within the framework of the narrative present. Most interesting to me is how the author conjures a sense of confinement to create tension and put unrelenting pressure on the characters’ interactions.
Amy and Isabelle takes place over the course of an exceptionally hot summer in Shirley Falls, a fictional paper mill town in Maine along a river that’s “just a dead brown snake of a thing lying flat through the center of town.” The air is thick with a sulfuric stench, crops are wilting off their dry stalks, and the town is rife with rumor and fear over a young girl gone missing. Daughter and mother work together inside a stifling office, an atmosphere that grows heavier by the day as the friction between them grows. Productivity languishes office-wide as the other women ponder the source of the discord between the two. After work, Amy and Isabelle go home to share little conversation over a dull supper in a rented house on the edge of town. Money’s tight. Hearts are closed.
There was no escaping the heat or each other. Even the two bedrooms tucked under the eaves hardly supplied much privacy, divided as they were by only a plaster wall. Isabelle, frightened of electrical fires, would not allow the fans to run while they slept, and so the hot nights were silent and still; through the thin walls they could hear each other turn over in bed.
In Amy and Isabelle, everything about the set up—the climate, the tenor of the prose, the drone of routine, and the weight of expectation—conjures the inevitable implosion that will result in the reconfiguration of power and acquiescence. There is nowhere to go but somewhere that is no longer here, and yet, the story itself never feels stuck. It continues to move forward as if something fresh invigorates it, but is never resolved.
All that had once been endless would by then have ended, and Isabelle, at different places and moments in the years to come, would sometimes be surrounded by silence and find in herself the repeated word, “Amy.” “Amy, Amy”—for this was it, her heart’s call, her prayer.
Is it the hale and hearty character traits found in the hardscrabble women of Shirley Falls that is so intriguing? Is it the crack in Isabelle’s shame story that allows the slightest hope that Amy will receive some glimmer of her mother’s compassion? Is it the human vulnerability, rendered so honestly, that keeps readers wanting the rift between daughter and mother to mend? Somehow one trusts that it will.
Strout masters a fearless voice and demonstrates unequivocal compassion for her characters in Amy and Isabelle. The weighty work promotes both thinking and feeling in the discrete evolution of a parent and child as they undergo a necessary separation, as well as how they navigate the inevitable overlap.
Readers might also seek wisdom in Strout’s latest success, My Name is Lucy Barton. The whole of this short novel takes place within the four walls of a New York City hospital room, where the protagonist, Lucy, lying ill from a post-operative infection, is visited by her estranged mother, who sits and chats with Lucy during her scant waking hours. Lucy has not invited her mother, nor has her mother sought to reunite with Lucy after all their years apart. But when invited and funded by Lucy’s husband to fly in from the Midwest, she arrives ready to pick up where the two left off, to chit chat about the superfluous goings on of their tired hometown, to speak little about the hardships of poverty, and even less about the conspiracy of child abuse, to broach blame from multiple angles, and then pull back when blame promises to ricochet.
Lucy herself says, “It was the sound of my mother’s voice I most wanted; what she said didn’t matter.” And therein lies the tension. What is said becomes what is not said. Their estrangement potentizes the reunion, and while it cannot erase the realities of Lucy’s past and her need to escape it, the maternal attention and affection she experiences over five fleeting days becomes her medicine.
Yet not all is cured. AIDS will creep through the city and claim friends. Marriages will fail. Children will grow and leave the nests of the most devoted of mothers. Through it all, loneliness will arrive on the blank pages before which Lucy stands as an earnest writer in her own right. Just as Strout elicits a reader’s compassion for Amy and Isabelle, here too, she finds something admirable in the everyday imperfections of Lucy’s relationship with her mother. “Because we all love imperfectly.”
In Amy and Isabelle, Strout sequestered her mother and daughter characters in a sweltering working class town in Maine. Troubles fester and escalate. Readers are left with a sense of temporary resolution. In My Name is Lucy Barton, a grown woman and her aging mother are placed side-by-side, one unable to leave a sky-reaching hospital in Manhattan. While Strout offers no apology and absolution, she writes about a welcome and lasting reprieve.
When Strout was asked in an interview with Random House Reader’s Circle what she hoped her readers would come away with, she replied, “…I would like the reader to feel that we are all, more or less, in a similar state as we love and disappoint one another, and that we try, most of us, as best we can, and that to fail and succeed is what we do.”
Amy and Isabelle and My Name is Lucy Barton are not the same story. But somehow reading both novels gave me a sense of having expanded my singular view of each, as taken together they represent the potential for a broader cycle of experience—beginning in childhood with Lucy, moving to adolescence with Amy and single motherhood with Isabelle, and finally, to explore the role of Lucy’s unnamed mother, in conversation with her adult daughter, Lucy, who is now a mother herself.
Every day, as I navigate from mother role to daughter role in my own life—giving the wrong advice, leaving out words that were inevitably needed, overreaching and withdrawing—I take heart from having met Amy and Isabelle, Lucy and her mother. I am immersed in scenes that, in their universality, mimic my very real life interactions with my own mother and daughters, and show how love is indeed far less than perfect.
I read into my own life as a daughter, mother, and grandmother, and wrestle with the confinement in these roles—the mundane undertakings, the inevitable heartaches, and the all too infrequent and coveted joys—when the epiphanies no longer belong exclusively to me. Perhaps it’s in reading and writing fiction that I gain the freedom to leave and return to them, my mother and my daughters, whenever I wish, and whenever they wish, to gather up relief and offer some in exchange.