I had looked forward to this latest book by Elizabeth Strout since I read about its impending release in January, on “The Millions” on Twitter. There was so much in this book that resonated with me, not the least of which was the dynamic between Lucy and her mother. The relationship one has with their mother determines the kind of adult they will become, and has a great impact on one’s ability to love and be loved in return. Having met Lucy’s mother, I marveled at Lucy’s ability to reinvent herself and seemingly fit into a world that was completely foreign to her. We all need a mother’s love, but Lucy didn’t know that when she was in the hospital recovering from an appendectomy gone awry. Her husband did- or perhaps he was just looking for someone to keep his wife company during her extended hospital stay- and arranged for Lucy’s estranged mother to visit. Even though he’s not much of a presence in the story, I liked him for that, however briefly. His absence definitely contributed to the overall aura of detachment and aloneness surrounding Lucy.
There was something about the tone of the prose that caused me to keep filling up with emotion. Of course there were specific passages that brought me to tears, but that was independent of the emotion that the prose engendered in me, and I can’t quite say what that “something” is. Lucy alludes to a similar situation as she returned home after going to Sarah Payne’s (the writer she briefly encountered in a clothing shop) panel discussion on the topic, “the idea of fiction.” After the discussion, Lucy overheard a man who knew Sarah say something nasty about her. Lucy muses, “And I took the subway home alone; it was not a night I loved the city I have lived in for so long. But I could not have said exactly why. Almost, I could have said why. But not exactly why.” So I can almost say what that “something” is, but not exactly.
The themes of otherness and loneliness pervade the narrative. As a child, Lucy was ostracized because she was poor. I don’t quite understand why the community marginalized Lucy’s family to the degree that they did because so much of what we think we know is only intimated. We do know that something terrible happened between her father and her brother in a rather public way, and that great pain was suffered by the whole family. Maybe that’s what I’m trying to define about the tone of the narrative: in what was unsaid, or unwritten, a lot was conveyed. The one detail Lucy’s mother shares about Lucy’s 36 year-old brother who still lives at home is that he has no job, but spends the night in the Pederson’s barn (their closest neighbors) with any animal that will be killed the next day. This reminded me of something I had heard on a podcast criticizing the meat industry. Studies show that animals that are stressed produce hormones that cause their meat to taste bitter.The reason the industry doesn’t address it institutionally is that the remedy would be expensive. Most meat is so highly processed that the consumer doesn’t notice the bitter taste anyway, so there’s no financial imperative to change. There are farmers who have adopted more humane practices to address this, and their products are more expensive, but as one farmer said, it should be expensive, it’s a life. So, why did the brother sleep next to the soon-to-be slaughtered animal, on its last night alive? Did providing comfort to the animal help the brother heal himself? Can an act of compassion do that? We don’t learn enough about the brother to know how damaged he was before the incident with his father, but I feel pretty confident that there was always an unspoken animosity, especially on the part of the father that the son certainly could feel. I think about this part of the story a lot. Lucy’s mother did say that the brother loves those children’s books about the family on the prairie. Who wouldn’t? What better way to escape from a loveless home than to spend time in a book with such a loving family.
As to loneliness, in the hospital Lucy attempted to engage the busy nurses in conversation because of it. Growing up, even though she had a sister equally reviled by other children, Lucy was not close to her, viewing her with the same detached suspicion with which she viewed the rest of the world. Her parents were emotionally distant. There was no television, no newspapers or magazines in her childhood home and the closest neighbors were far away, so Lucy literally had no connection to the greater world around her, especially culturally. When she was in third grade she read a book about a poor, dirty girl named Tilly, who was teased by a couple of sisters who had a nice mother. The nice mother made them be good to Tilly. Reading that made Lucy feel less alone, and she thought that one day she would write so that people would feel less alone. Later, when Lucy attended Sarah Payne’s writer’s worship, Sarah told the group, “you will have only one story. You will write your one story many ways.” If Lucy’s one story is the legacy of a childhood that rendered her always alone and lonely, detached from other people and unable to accept their love, does writing make her less alone? Is it a form of therapy? Does it make her lovable? What is it about Lucy that makes her so resilient, when so many others in similar circumstances can’t function?
Lucy was a completely different kind of mother to her own children than her mother was to her and her siblings. Where her mother was laconic and aloof, Lucy was nurturing and loving, telling her girls that she loved them and assuring them that she would return from the hospital to take care of them soon. When her second child went off to college, Lucy thought that she would die. “Nothing had prepared me for such a thing. And I find this to be true: Certain women feel like this, that their hearts have been ripped from their chests, and other women find it very freeing to have their children gone.” I wonder if Lucy’s mother felt that way when Lucy left for college, or if she needed to maintain an emotional distance in order to survive the horrors she had suffered as a child, or those that were going on in her own home. It seemed that the family resented Lucy leaving, moving on, making a better life for herself. Her sister behaved as though Lucy owed her financial restitution, which Lucy encouraged by continuing to send her sister money, ultimately for yoga lessons. That gave Lucy pause, but she paid, motivated, no doubt, by guilt.
This was a library book. Because it is a book I will want to read again, and again, I must buy a copy of my own. Needless to say, I loved it.
Lucy had an ambivalent relationship with art. No art had graced the walls of the garage where her family had first lived, or later, the shabby house. She had no context in which to understand it. When she saw the art in her friend Jeremy’s apartment the first and only time she visited him there, she recognized the great gap between them, because Lucy didn’t know what to make of it. On a personal level, Lucy had walked past a particular sculpture in the sculpture garden of the Metropolitan Museum in New York where she lived, many times with her husband and children, all the while thinking about getting food for the kids and taking care of their needs, not to mention being slightly overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of objects to look at. Only in the more recent past, when the light illuminated this particular piece in a particularly beautiful way, did she stop and look at it and say: “Oh.” That statue is called “Ugolino and His Sons” by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux. It depicts the moment when Ugolino yields to the temptation to devour his children and grandchildren. There is a look of agony on Ugolino’s face as he struggles with his emotions. The sculpture is based on Canon 33 of Dante’s Inferno, relating how in 1288, the Pisan traitor, Count Ugolino was imprisoned and starved to death. In that moment of really looking at the statue for the first time, Lucy felt a kinship with both the sculptor and the poet. They knew, she thought. They both knew. In subsequent trips to the museum, Lucy would go off by herself to view the sculpture alone if she had come with someone. Once, when she came by herself to see it, it wasn’t there. The guard told her it was in special exhibit upstairs. Lucy’s initial response was mild irritation, but on reflection she thought, “Pity us. We don’t mean to be so small.” How appropriate that the art that finally touched Lucy had as its theme hunger. Hunger-a metaphor for all of the aspects of the human experience that leave one wanting.
This was a challenge. After searching the book for a second time, skimming and rereading, it became clear that food references in a book where the heroine spent her childhood practically starving, were sparse. Most nights, the Bartons ate bread with molasses. In a scene that soured her feelings for the professor she was in love with in college, Lucy revealed that her family had eaten a lot of baked beans. Finally, there was the candy apple her father bought for her when he took her to see the Black Feet ceremony. Since none of those culinary delights struck my fancy, all that was left was a reference to William’s (Lucy’s husband) German POW father having worked on a potato farm in Maine. As it happens, I have a recipe for “Kartoffelpuffer,” German potato pancakes, that I have been making for more than thirty years. In a remarkable case of serendipity, I was making them that night, after having discovered the potato connection in the book in the afternoon.
I serve them with sour cream and homemade apple sauce. If you love potatoes, as I do, you will love this recipe. (I can’t advocate strongly enough for the bacon fat. I save and freeze mine in 1 tablespoon dollops during tomato season when we’re eating a lot of BLTs.)
Kartoffelpuffer (German Potato Pancakes)
4 medium potatoes (1½ lbs.) ¼ C all-purpose flour
2 eggs, beaten 1 tsp salt
1 small onion, finely chopped ¼ C bacon fat, margarine or butter
Shred potatoes in a food processor to measure 4 cups. Drain potatoes by giving small handfuls a squeeze over the sink to release the liquid. Repeat until all potatoes have been drained. Mix potatoes, onions, flour and salt in a large bowl. Add beaten eggs and mix well.
Heat 2 tablespoons of the bacon fat in a nonstick pan over medium heat until hot. Pour in about ¼ cup batter for each pancake. Flatten each with a spatula into a pancake about four inches in diameter. Cook until golden brown, about 2 minutes on each side. Keep warm in oven at about 160º. Repeat with remaining batter, adding bacon fat as needed to prevent sticking. Serve with applesauce and sour cream.
You can freeze any leftover pancakes.
HOMEMADE APPLE SAUCE
4 apples, peeled, cored, cut into slices ½ C white sugar
½ C water ½ fresh lemon, juiced
Bring water, apples and lemon juice to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, and adding more water if mixture gets too dry, until apples are soft. Move from heat and mash. Add sugar, mix well, return to stove and simmer on low for 5 minutes. (Add sugar in increments of tablespoons until the sauce is sweet enough for your taste. 2 tablespoons is usually enough for me.)
Use a mixture of soft apples for better flavor and faster cooking. I use a combination of two of the following: Gala, Fuji, Braeburn, Cortland, McIntosh, or Golden Delicious. We pick in the fall and freeze for use over the long, dark, winter!