I loved Strout’s Olive Kitteridge with an uncommon passion, so I decided to read her more recent bestseller My Name Is Lucy Barton.
And oh my God. Oh God, oh God, oh God. The novel is not simply bad, it’s horrific. Outside of a couple of Harlequin romances I was once forced to read, this was probably the worst reading experience of my life. I read until the very last page because I kept hoping there would be some sort of a reveal telling us that the writer is consciously parodying bad writing. But no, there was no reassurance of this nature.
It seems that there is not a pompous banality under the sun that Strout forgot to include in the novel. The characters are shallow, the narrative devices she uses are strained, the plot is beyond trite. But the worst thing, oh, the very very worst, is that somewhere in the middle of the book THERE IS AN EXPLANATION of what the novel is about and how you are supposed to read it.
The main difference between a writer and a quack is that, in the moment of writing, a writer doesn’t remember the reader. She isn’t tortured by the need to signpost, explain and make sure the readers have not an inch of space to create their own reading of the text. She trusts the text enough to stand on its own, even when she’s not there to guide the readers to “a correct understanding” of it.
It’s possible that Strout is a one-novel writer who said all she had to say with Olive Kitteridge and is now straining to repeat its success in the absence of having anything new to say. Lucy and Olive revolve around the same theme – an abusive, oblivious mother who devours her children’s lives – but while Olive has something to say to the world, Lucy is devoid of value. It’s a huge bestseller, though, because its banalities are very Facebook-quotable.