On the subject of his vocation, Philip Roth liked to quote Czeslaw Milosz2020欧洲杯体育投注网: “When a writer is born into a family, that family is finished.” It’s a great aphorism, pithy and cavalier, as emphatic as a gunshot. To write is to declare a loyalty that runs deeper than blood, to make a pledge to the self and its expression; to write well is to tell the truth about what you have seen, starting with where—and who—you come from. That, anyway, is what Milosz, and Roth, felt, and they make the selfishness at the heart of a writer’s life sound like the glorious liberation it is. But there’s also a riskier exposure at stake. The writer who bares others’ secrets must also bare her own, standing vulnerable before the people who purport to know her best. When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished, not just because the child is bound to tell the truth about her parents but because she must tell the truth about herself.
Elizabeth Strout’s novel “” is the story of a writer reckoning with the legacy of a scarred family life and slowly coming to terms with the costs and the rewards of her art. When Lucy is in her early twenties and newly married, she moves with her husband to New York, where they live in the West Village. Lucy is from Amgash, Illinois, more of a pinprick on the map than a town proper, and she grew up poor, sharing a single room with her brother, her sister, and her parents, a seamstress and a repairman of farm machinery; there was no heat, no toilet, and never enough to eat. Lucy got good grades, though, and escaped to Chicago on a scholarship. And she began writing stories. Two have been published, but she is shy about saying so. A neighbor takes an interest in her and, when he learns what she does, advises her to be ruthless. Lucy is caught short. “I did not think I was or could be ruthless,” she tells us. How she learns to become so is the subject of this quiet yet surprisingly fierce book.
“My Name Is Lucy Barton” was published in 2016 and quickly landed at the top of the Times2020欧洲杯体育投注网 best-seller list, bumping down “,” a thriller about a scorned, alcoholic woman, and “,” a historical heart-tugger about a blind one. Evidently, people also wanted to read about a more familiar sort of woman, a type almost too recognizable to warrant sustained attention—that is, one who suffers doubt but holds out hope for clarity, who applies herself imperfectly but insistently to the task of living.
Now they can see her, too, in the form of Laura Linney, who stars in a one-woman adaptation of Strout’s novel (directed by Richard Eyre, at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman). The set, designed by Bob Crowley, is minimal. A single hospital bed and a utilitarian, nondescript armchair occupy the stage. Behind the furniture are three nested screens, onto which are alternately projected the Chrysler Building—faintly shimmering by day, a bright beacon in the murky city sky by night—and the corn and soy fields of Lucy’s childhood, explosively green, as if touched up with Hulk-colored food dye. (Luke Halls did the video design.) Linney, in tapered slacks and a long, loose cardigan, strides out, to inevitable applause—the audience sits onstage as well as in the house—and, as Lucy, speaks directly to us. Some years ago, she says, she came to the hospital with a ruptured appendix and developed a mysterious and undiagnosed illness that kept her there for nine weeks. (This was in the mid-eighties, during the height of the aids epidemic; later, she will tell us of seeing a hospital door marked with a yellow sticker, a sign of plague within.) Her husband rarely came to see her, and, when her two young daughters visited, they were brought by a family friend. Lucy’s only regular contact was with a kind doctor, who seemed to feel fatherly toward her, visiting her daily, beyond the normal call of duty.
2020欧洲杯体育投注网Then, one day, she woke to find her mother sitting in the chair by her bed. It had been years since Lucy had seen her; she had never before come to New York. Lucy’s mother—we don’t learn her name—is an ambiguous presence, part comfort, part threat. She calls Lucy by her childhood pet name, Wizzle; Linney distinguishes her with a cragged, smoky voice, whose flattened “a”s and sanded “r”s supposedly signal northern Illinois. (This New Yorker’s limited ear would have pegged her as a Bostonian.) She’s withholding and Midwestern proud, but, when Lucy asks for stories of home, her mother obliges, telling tales of Amgash and its people, which she seasons with bitter humor and a dash of Schadenfreude. There’s Kathie Nicely, for instance, a wealthy woman whose dresses Lucy’s mother sewed, who ends up divorced by her husband, abandoned by her lover, and despised by her children, and Mississippi Mary, whose fate, on discovering her husband’s infidelity, is just as bleak. What Lucy’s mother doesn’t like to talk about is the Bartons. How Lucy’s father, who returned from the Second World War with post-traumatic stress disorder, flew into unstoppable panics and brutally humiliated Lucy’s brother. How Lucy’s mother herself beat the children. How Lucy, when she was very young, was locked in the family truck while her parents went to work, an ordeal that Lucy can’t address with her mother, and instead describes to us:
Strout’s language, deftly adapted for the stage by Rona Munro, is simple in the way of a coiled pot or a Shaker chair, a solid, unfussy construction whose elegance lies in its polished unity, and Linney, radiating warmth and lucidity, is just the right actor to bring it to life. Winding through dense tracts of script, her ninety-minute performance is a feat of subtle bravura. It’s no easy thing to play a mother in one breath and her child in another. (Ask Norman Bates.) As in Strout’s novel, there is a possibility here that Lucy has fantasized her mother’s visit, whether in the haze of her sickness or in the more productive intentional imaginings of a fiction writer; whatever the case, as Lucy goes deeper into her story, the older woman starts to fade, and Linney lets us see through Lucy’s shyness to her open heart, which has sustained her through a life of loneliness and a staid and estranging marriage. Linney’s skin seems nearly to shine, and tears roll down her cheeks, which she wipes with practical, smiling self-assurance.