We all love imperfectly. Mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, siblings and lovers. We love as we live, with false starts and half truths and slipped steps or missed opportunities—to reach out, to say “thank you” or “I love you.” The latest novel by Pulitzer-Prize winning Elizabeth Strout is an elegy to the imperfect love between mothers and daughters.
In the mid-1980s Lucy goes to the hospital for a routine operation and returns many months later and pounds lighter. Despite her protracted illness she carries the glimmers of something beautiful inside her, a series of sketches describing a five day visit from her mother in the hospital.
Estranged, though not overtly embittered, mother and daughter reunite after years separation with little fanfare. They fall into an uneasy pattern of gossip from Lucy’s hometown, Amgash, Illinois, broken by regular visits from nurses (nicknamed Cookie, Toothache and Serious Child) and daily visits from the doctor.
Cousin Harriett and her two children, a tragedy. That girl whose name neither can recall, the one who married the high school quarterback, another tragedy. Lucy’s own siblings—distant strangers. All marriages in various stages of disillusionment, lives in various stages of repair. What is unsaid is as important, if not more so, than what is actually expressed—who, what and why Lucy left, and the reasons her mother stays.
Healthy once more, Lucy takes her literary aspirations in hand. She attends a workshop taught by a writer she admires armed with the sketches of her mother’s hospital vigil.
“This is a story about a mother who loves her daughter. Imperfectly. Because we all love imperfectly,” the authoress tells Lucy. “But if you find yourself protecting anyone as you write this piece, remember this: You’re not doing it right.”
Strout delivers advice to writers and provides a glimpse of a writer’s internal life through author Sarah Payne. Take yourself seriously. Never defend your writing, and never use your position to make others feel small. Don’t protect anyone while writing. Show up.
“You will only have one story,” Sarah tells Lucy. We all have one story if we are brave enough. Our stories are separate from those of our parents and from our children—and yet they are intertwined in ways we think we can imagine but can’t successfully conceptualize.
Do parents understand their children? They hope to, at least. Lucy, worrying about her own adult children, remembers the wounds of childhood linger:
“But I think I know so well the pain we children clutch to our chests, how it lasts our whole lifetime, with longings so large you can’t even weep. We hold it tight, we do, with each seizure of the beating heart: This is mine, this is mine, this is mine.”
Strout explores the complex relationships between parents and children with compassion, insight and the light touch of a philosopher who is essentially an optimist. For every beating there exists a counter-caress, for every afternoon of neglect a warm hand cupped on the nape of the neck. For every pain there is the opportunity to forgive and love more deeply.
Artists must be ruthless, Lucy’s friend, Jeremy, tells her as they sit on her front stoop in New York City during the first waves of the AIDS epidemic, both still so young in their individual way. You will only have one story and you will have to be ruthless to achieve your goals. This is Lucy’s story, her ruthlessness laid bare.
“You just went ahead and… did it,” Lucy’s mother says, sitting in the hard-backed hospital chair. Envious. Proud. Baffled, that the daughter she created could simply make a life.
Was Lucy ruthless? She never visited home, was always working on a story. She left her first marriage because she knew if she stayed she wouldn’t write the book she aspired to.
“But really, the ruthlessness, I think, comes in grabbing onto myself, in saying: This is me, and I will not go where I can’t bear to go—to Amgash, Illinois—and I will not stay in a marriage when I don’t want to, and I will grab myself and hurl onward through life, blind as a bat, but on I go!”
Blind as bats, on we go.