The Challenges of Reviewing a Mentor

It’s tough to write a review of someone I’ve met, someone I’ve been reading for years, someone who taught at the Queens University MFA program when I was a graduate student. It’s also tough to write a review and not be influenced by all the other amazing reviews that have been published about Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton in the last two weeks: New York Times, Boston Globe, the Seattle Times, and so many more. There is a new review every day it seems!

The reason for all the hype is that My Name is Lucy Barton is a great book, or, as Claire Messud said in her review for the New York Times “an exquisite novel.” And my review didn’t do it justice, which makes me unhappy. I was too aware of the fact that Strout might read my review and I care what she thinks because I know her, sort of. And I think that I write better reviews when I don’t think about who is reading them. So it was inspiring for me to read Lorin Stein’s essay in the New York Times book review today. He writes:

“To write a story also requires public solitude. You can’t be worrying how you sound. You can’t wonder whether you or your characters are likable or smart or interesting. You have to be inside the scene — the tactile world of tables and chairs and sunlight — attending to your characters, people who exist for you in nonvirtual reality. This takes weird brain chemistry. (A surprising number of novelists hear voice, and not metaphorically. They hear voice in their heads.) It also takes years of reading — solitary reading.”

What I would have said about this book if I wasn’t thinking about my audience is that Strout’s stories are satisfying and engaging, and the story of Lucy Barton seems so simple, but beneath the surface are layers and layers of work, of craft, and talent. What I loved about this story was the intimacy between mother and daughter. We all still long for our mothers don’t we? Lucy’s time in the hospital with her mother by her side reminds me of the time I was a new mother and recovering from a c-section and the way my mother stayed by my side. The way my mother brought me meals and cleaned my house and helped me figure out how to care for my baby. Aren’t we all so tired of working so hard all the time and don’t we all wish we could fall into bed and be cared for by our mothers? Now that we’re adults, don’t we all wish for that undivided attention, even if it’s just for a moment? Strout let’s us imagine what that would feel like through Lucy Barton. She gives us a glimpse into Lucy’s world where after years of distance, mother and daughter reconnect. They don’t ask those hard questions about the past, instead, they exist in a shared space and it’s lovely and satisfying.

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