“No one in this world comes from nothing,” My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

Lucy Barton says:
But there are times, too – unexpected – when walking down a sunny sidewalk, or watching the top of a tree bend in the wind, or seeing a November sky close down over the East River, I am suddenly filled with the knowledge of darkness so deep that a sound might escape from my mouth, and I will step into the nearest clothing store and talk with a stranger about the shape of sweaters newly arrived. This must be the way most of us maneuver through the world, half knowing, half not, visited by memories that can’t possibly be true. But when I see others walking with confidence down the sidewalk, as though they are free completely from terror, I realize I don’t know how others are. So much of life seems speculation (14).

I liked that Lucy said this. It feels like such an intimate confession. How many times have I walked down the sidewalk, believing that other people seemed to be very confident with themselves and their lives, while I was feeling like a lonely sinking ship out in the open sea? But the truth is, I think many people feel this sense of loneliness that Lucy describes. It’s just hard to tell because it’s not something that people advertise about themselves. When Lucy talked about being “filled with the knowledge of darkness so deep” that she feels the urge to strike up a conversation with a stranger just to tamper down that sense of loneliness, I felt multiple emotions. First, I immediately felt pity. Then, I realized that the person walking into a clothing store in November – escaping from the cold, and warming herself up with a light conversation with a stranger – could easily have been me. It’s possible to be surrounded by many people and still feel desperately lonely. From what Lucy said, I felt both pity and empathy.

My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout is one of the strangest books I have read, mostly because the story doesn’t seem to flow from the beginning to the end of the book. The story is told in snippets that feel (to me, at least) as though they were arranged randomly. And honestly, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it even by the end of the story. What I do know is that in the beginning of the novel, Lucy Barton is ill, and for most of the book, she is staying at the hospital to recover. Her mother comes to visit her, and while I know this now, when I was reading the book, I wondered if Lucy was imagining her mother. I had to pick up on textual cues, such as “the doctors looked at both my mother and me” (this is not an actual quote) to make sure that Lucy was speaking to her actual mother, and not the ghost of her mother. At times, I went back to these cues a few times, just to make sure.

While I understand that this book is about the complicated relationship between Lucy Barton and her mother, what I liked was when Lucy mentioned things about herself and her own life, especially things like this:

Looking back, I imagine that I was very odd, that I spoke too loudly, or that I said nothing when things of popular culture were mentioned; I think I responded strangely to ordinary types of humor that were unknown to me. I think I didn’t understand the concept of irony at all, and that confused people. (28)

From listening to the story of her life, I got to know the “internal” side of Lucy Barton. But for someone who doesn’t know this side of her, they may only see what is on the “outside,” which may be simple facts such as that Lucy Barton is a mother of two daughters. Oh, and that she has divorced her first husband (the father of her two daughters) and is now married to her second husband. Once, her mother-in-law (from her first husband) told someone that Lucy came from “nothing,” which could refer to the fact that when Lucy was growing up, her family didn’t own a house of their own. But this is no longer the case by the time Lucy tells her story. I think it’s even possible that if one were to pass Lucy Barton on the street, she may seem to be just another person walking down the sidewalk with confidence, even though this couldn’t be further from the truth.

This book reminded me that there are things we will never know about those around us unless they choose to share with us. I guess the same works for what we ourselves choose to disclose to others. In either case, Lucy Barton tells the reader:

“…this one is my story. This one. And my name is Lucy Barton.”


<Works Cited>
Strout, Elizabeth. My Name Is Lucy Barton: a Novel. Random House, 2016.



“We are not supposed to be friends…Did you know that?” The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne

How different are we from one another?

Today, I was in line at the grocery store, and a lady was at the cash register, quietly beeping the products. I have seen this lady a number of times, and as I stacked my coffee, pasta, and yogurt on the register, I wondered if the lady could recognize customers by the products they bought. While my pile of groceries seemed mundane, I wondered, “What would be the craziest thing a person can buy at a grocery store?” Then I wondered about the lady, and I wondered what clothes she preferred to wear on her day off. My mother works as a cashier, and on her days off, she likes to enjoy her morning cup of coffee, and check on her kids who are living in different states, to see how they are doing. What about this lady? I wondered if she has kids? Grand-kids? Or, maybe, no kids? I wondered what kind of customers she saw everyday, what she thought of them, or whether she was curious about them at all. What does this all matter? It really doesn’t. I am just curious.

I first started thinking about this in high school. I was writing a story, and I found myself questioning why I was so shy in front of others. I tried to dissect all of the reasons for my shyness, and while I couldn’t find a suitable answer, I realized that, shy or not, people may not be all that different from each other. Behind the walls of our houses, we are all living similar lives. Or maybe not? Anyways, I was intrigued by this idea. It didn’t matter whether the person was my teacher, doctor, a librarian, or even my boss. I wondered what they were like – as a member of their family, and a member of their own circle of friends – once they took off their “uniforms” and felt free to show all of their quirks and idiosyncrasies. Why? I don’t really know.

Anyway, this came to my mind when I read The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne. There is a moment in the book when Bruno wonders why he and his new friend, Shmuel, are sitting on opposite sides of the fence. The only difference he can see is that Shmuel has on a pair of striped pajamas (and that Shmuel seems to be overly thin) while he himself has on ‘regular clothes.’ Bruno thinks to himself:

“What exactly was the difference?…And who decided which people wore the striped pajamas and which people wore the uniforms?”

I was stunned by this question. I found that this question resonates with so many moments in history, where people, who really aren’t that much different from each other, have acted cruelly and harshly toward one another because they were separated by different “uniforms.” In particular, I felt that Bruno’s question about who decided which people wore which uniforms was important. There are always people who are in power and people who are subjugated, but the why of the equation does not always seem to make sense. After all, Bruno and Shmuel are both boys. In an “ideal” world (if such a world exists), both should be able to imagine a bright future for themselves. Instead, one of these boys suddenly finds himself and his family living apart from others, separated by a fence, and living a life of uncertainty and fear. And here, I find myself echoing Bruno’s question.

Bruno — a boy who thinks “Heil Hitler” means “Well, goodbye for now, have a pleasant afternoon” — cannot possibly figure out on his own why Shmuel and his family have to wear striped pajamas and live on the opposite side of the fence, unless someone explains to him. But even if someone were to give him an explanation, I wonder if Bruno would understand? Would it make sense to him?

And one final thought came into [Bruno’s] head as he watched the hundreds of people in the distance going about their business, and that was the fact that all of them – the small boys, the big boys, the fathers, the grandfathers, the uncles, the people who lived on their own on everybody’s road but didn’t seem to have any relatives at all – were wearing the same clothes as each other: a pair of grey striped pajamas with a grey striped cap on their heads.

“How extraordinary,” he muttered, before turning away.


<Work Cited>
Boyne, John. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. Random House Children’s Books. Kindle Edition.