I was once given a short story critique that read, “This character is not very likeable. You need to make her likeable so that the readers are pulling for her, wanting her to triumph.”
I see the logic and wisdom of the suggestion. It’s true. Likeability is a formula that works. It’s just not what I was trying to do. I wasn’t trying to make her likeable. I was trying to expose her ragged edges. One of the most frustrating experiences as a writer happens when the message we are trying so desperately to convey is not the message that is heard.
Perhaps because of my background in psychology, I am compelled to write about what is unresolved—the relentless nagging pieces of life that just won’t let us alone, the mild river of human misery that runs alongside everyone as part of the human condition and overflows its banks from time to time. Sure I love the happy stuff. It’s just not what I feel a need to let out.
No one accomplishes the illustration of the unlikeable better than Elizabeth Strout, first, to an extent in Olive Kitteridge, but more clearly and poignantly in My Name is Lucy Barton.
In Lucy we see the parts of ourselves that are at once hardened, and yet remain vulnerable, toughened and yet desperate, conquered and yet not fully defeated.
The writing is intentionally staccato and primitive, bordering on a mix of conversation and stream-of consciousness. In essence, it is like the manner in which we are visited by anecdotes from our past. They come at us, sometimes out of the blue, to remind us of what remains unresolved, unmanaged or unexamined.
My Name is Lucy Barton is a rather short book, with only 209 pages and an easy flowing tone. It reads like a genuine piece of non-fiction, like a voyeuristic look into someone’s journal. And here is the mastery of Strout’s writing: it is written in an intentionally amateurish and disjointed manner, reflective of the narrator’s naïve writing style, and yet Strout’s prose manages to be complex and provocative in its nuances of character development. Lucy Barton relies heavily on flashbacks and ruminations of childhood issues, made more realistic by the setting of a hospital room, a place where one often has too much time to think and not enough everyday distraction.
It’s not so much that the protagonist Lucy is unlikable. It’s more that she stirs up the pesky, uncomfortable memories of times when we haven’t maintained control of our circumstances or were overwhelmed by them.
To credit my aforementioned critic, the reviews for Lucy Barton are somewhat evenly distributed across the spectrum. The book is at once loved, hated, and met with a neutral “meh.” It’s not so much that the protagonist Lucy is unlikable. It’s more that she stirs up the pesky, uncomfortable memories of times when we haven’t maintained control of our circumstances or were overwhelmed by them. This will either intrigue you or annoy the reader, depending on frame of mind, urging the reader to scratch the itch or reinforcing the notion of ignoring those memories entirely.
Woven into the story, Lucy Barton’s writing inspiration Sarah Payne says that each of us really only has one story within us. Perhaps this is true. Perhaps we reveal that story in bits and pieces. Perhaps each fragment that we write is more or less a veiled depiction of our “one true story.” The beauty and challenge is to find a voice where our story connects with the story of others.