A really quiet book.
And yet, a wealth of palpable emotions, and with power.
Last time I read something so deceitfully peaceful was "The Remains of the Day" by Kazuo Ishiguro (And then he won the Nobel Prize). And Strout is a Pulitzer winner herself.
The language is very simple (so simple from the start it might fool you the depth of the topics explored here), and curiosity about Lucy's past and her dissolving marriage might not be satisfied since Lucy only alluded what happened in her life. So it wouldn't be hard to imagine why this book isn't for everyone, or at least for those who are in a different reading mood (i.e., expecting an action-packed journey).
And the story really doesn't' have much plot: Lucy's estranged mother visits Lucy during her hospitalization for a mysterious infection. Over the course of her mother's unexpected five-day stay, the mother and daughter discussed only gossips about townspeople and other than that, silences filled the room.
Interspersed with lucy's memories of her mother's hospital visits were portraits of kindhearted people Lucy encountered, and we slowly piece together Lucy's life: her suffering from childhood, the only one who "betrayed" her impoverished family and "got away", her yearning for her mother's love and was never sure of it, and most of all: her loneliness. This loneliness because of her sense of isolation, because of so many things she could not communicate to others.
What is it like to grow up so poor? to be laughed at in school, to have no food or heat, to go through dumpsters, to be locked in a trunk because no one could keep an eye on her? She couldn't communicate all the loneliness she felt growing up or even the pains she was experiencing currently, not to her mother, not to her husband and daughters, not to anyone.
Through the silences between the mother and daughter, we as readers understand Lucy's hidden pain: the incommunicable of her yearning for love and understanding. As the only child who escaped from poverty, Lucy also lost the ways to communicate with her mother. And in her mother's eyes, because of this "success", Lucy's suffering and yearning is easily dismissed. So many things Lucy wished they could say to each other: about her father, her mother; about her own children, and their lives. Instead, there were only other people's gossips. This ache of Lucy's isn't screamed out but only felt in between lines. It reminds me of the adult us, of our own behaviors with parents in real life: how we need something, perhaps a tv, a story, a pet, a sport, a gossip to bind us together. We want to communicate our deepest feelings with our family, yet we fail at that. And this is the part I felt many readers with which could resonate.
What else is there we could talk to our parents about? Many of us grow up, leave town and as a consequence leave our aging parents behind. Sometimes, mournfully but inevitably we grow apart. We search our words trying to communicate our deepest feelings about life in the bustling city. Yet we were left speechless with our parents' concern about marriage or child-bearing. So we avert our gaze, evade the questions. The barrier is formed, and the silences fall upon us. We reached the incommunicable, and we feel the sense of isolation.
And yet, Invisible silences bind.Through gossips, TVs, sports, we could still bind with our parents. However imperfect the love is, however long the silences are stretched, love is there. Through the vibrating silences, Lucy still thought: "Oh I was so happy, Oh I was happy speaking with my mother this way". "All I wanted is to hear her voice". “I feel that people may not understand that my mother could never say the words I love you. I feel that people may not understand: It was all right.”
I guess no matter how old we become, no matter how many achievements we made in our lives, the words "childhood", "home", "mother", "love" always ring a bell. In Strout's novel, there's no sentimentality but through these vibrating silences, tension is built, longing is screamed, tenderness is spoken, and acceptance is proffered.
This is an exquisite novel. Don't let the simple language fool you.