It is with a gentle grace and ease of style that author Elizabeth Strout pulls you into this tale. So easy in fact it feels less like a fiction being told than it does a reading discovered from notations within a diary. Or perhaps overhearing two friends sitting down in Starbucks sipping their lattes and mochas.
"There was a time, and it was many years ago now, when I had to stay in a hospital for almost nine weeks."
So begins this beguiling tale. What is revealed during this time, this period of hospitalised incarceration, as Lucy lies in bed visited first by her mom, then a friend is the dysfunctional truth of her childhood with a father who's mood swings were as unpredictable as they were abusive.
At first, as her mother visits, you, the reader, are unaware of how rare a thing this is. Mother and daughter have spent many years apart. They have long been estranged. However, the mother upon hearing of Lucy's appendix operation and the subsequent illness makes the journey visiting her daughter whose side she stays by for five nights. The conversations are filled with a gentle tension as each plays a polite probing of the others feelings. Almost as if both have a yearning, based upon the distant past, to explore the boundaries of their relationship as much to re-establish a love long held but seldom spoken of. In fact, neither are quite sure how the other really feels about them. So they talk communicate by recollecting family events, historical anecdotes that lessen the gap between them.
They're times when a word or statement made causes tension but that passes with a hurried moving on to safer ground. It becomes apparent that mother has a deep affection for her daughter, for all her children, no less with Lucy than the others but the bugbear in all their lives was, or rather had been, their father, her husband.
The more you read the greater the realisation of the withheld emotions by all parties. Of the resentments felt, the unexpressed love they all felt which for years was kept in check in fear of the father's reaction to them.
Told in as unsentimental manner as possible we learn of the severe deprivation, the extreme poverty Lucy had lived in. With a lack of books, of television and indeed of hugs. Lucy, now a successful writer, recalls how lonely she was, how desperately afraid that the life they all lived would be one lived like that until the end of their days.
When Lucy asks her mother, seated by her bedside, if she loves her the mother is unable to say whether she does or doesn't but replies with the enigmatic, elusive "when your eyes are closed."
It is an emotionally tangled book one that shows us the complexity, in fact, responsibilty of parental love. The real sadness is in the fact that even after all these years Lucy's mom is unable to utter the words her daughter, now an adult and mother of her own, longs to hear.
Remarkably sad yet also a remarkably good read.
Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.