My Name is Lucy Barton [By Elizabeth Strout}. Liked this a lot; wish I had written it. I keep telling myself how much I dislike American female writers but the reality is that some of my favourite novels are in fact by American female writers. Olive Kitteridge [By Elizabeth Strout}. American Wife [By Curtis Sittenfeld}. Alice Munro’s excellent The Beggar Maid, reviewed her back in 2014.
This has quite mixed reviews on Amazon, only 3.5 stars with one persuasive reviewer suggesting her heart wasn’t in it, but I can’t agree.
It is written in the first-person with a limited cast by the protagonist, Lucy from a hospital bed in New York, where she is suffering from an undiagnosed and possibly psychosomatic illness. Her estranged Mum turns up out of the blue and stays for a week during which by the medium of hindsight and memory, we learn about her past and the reasons for the estrangement. It is so well written: I cannot applaud her writing enough. There is a section early on where she is obliged to do an info-dump, so, so difficult in the first person [I have found, anyway] and she executes it remakably well.
Not a lot else to say; she, Lucy comes from a deprived, dirt-poor childhood to a relatively wealthy existence in NY. So what. It’s just so beautifully written.
Strout is completely on top of her game.
Mend the Living [By Maylis de Kerangal]. This is a French novel, beautifully translated by either Jessica Moore [English edition] or Sam Taylor [American Edition] - - take your pick. It is about a heart transplant and follows the events from the early and tragic death of a healthy young man in an accident, through the grief of his parents to the hospital and the procedures attending the agreements required to donate his organs. It’s good. The sections on grief are tremendously well done and the journey taken by the recipient and her anxious wait for life is equally moving. I wish she had said a little more about her close relatives and their own anxious wait during the actual operation but she doesn’t. The transplant is the final section of the novel and as a writer, I can see why she would want to end it there.
It is full of detail, medical detail, practical detail and emotional detail, which I liked: it all serves to get a sense of momentum, that everything matters and how important each small step is. And she does ask the question; should we be doing this? And when do you die?
It is seriously ambitious and she gets her narrative about as right as anyone could ask for: the major players are sufficiently rounded out for us to care and the lesser characters sharply defined. If I were to criticise anything it would be the rather silly one-sentence paragraphs and chapters which are, I don’t know, irritating and unnecessary, plus she is far too fond of alliteration, for example:
[S] - - and lodges all this self-disgust like a supplication in his stomach
[N] - - the process of acquiring scientific knowledge, he re-enacts . . .
There is another particularly striking one full of AW’s
In fact there is an excellent but critical review on Amazon which says that the tricksy writing style gets in the way and I certainly agree that it is an obstacle, not an advantage.
Of course, as someone who recently had a transplant, kidney in my case, it is all the more personal I suppose. It isn’t that I have never thought about the [anonymous] donor or what tragedy lay behind the fact that she was able to provide me with a few more years of life, it is simply that there is nothing to say. I know only that she was a 65-year old woman. I don’t know if she died in a road accident or after a long illness. I don’t know if she was local. I don’t want or need to know any of these things. I do know she was carrying a virus which I subsequently caught at Easter and which almost killed me. I’m not even curious, to be honest.
I took a look at the NHS Website after reading this to see what the success rate of heart transplants is and it is 75% after three years. The Newcastle Freeman Hospital, where I had my transplant done, is world-renowned and survival rates are much better. Quality of life? That’s the question. Can you return to work for example after a heart transplant? There was a youngish guy on our ward . . . mid-thirties, I would guess . . . who seemed to me to be almost a permanent resident. His contact with his family was via Skype and you could sense that while he was desperate, literally, to maintain a relationship with his kids they were more interested in going round to Julies for a sleepover, which right now they were running late for and . . . and . . . it was time to go, Dad . . .
It’s a big subject but if it is one that interests you, I would strongly recommend reading this.