The eponymous title sets the parameters for Elizabeth Strout’s deeply introspective novel. Like a child in first grade or a beginning language student, the protagonist, Lucy Barton, proclaims from every page her rage to be seen against a shifting landscape in which alienation is the ever-present danger. The reader meets her in the anonymity of a prolonged hospital stay. The clinical sterility of her room is illuminated at night by the lights of the Chrysler Building. That building hovers over her experience as a strangely personal image of a secular god. Its suggestion of order, beauty, and strength reaches toward the sky beyond, a silent correlative of the hidden element in her own soul that is both salve and desire.
The building acts as recurring motif throughout the novel. It’s an image of identity in an otherwise blur of buildings. It aspires to having its artistic design recognized and thus becomes a model for Lucy’s ambition to have her own fiction recognized.
The building is linguistically connected to the near-mystical presence of Lucy’s mother in the hospital room. Both mother and building seem to have mystical night powers as they intersect with the daughter’s silence. The mother’s dreams connect with the daughter’s life providing knowledge of a birth, certainty of recovery, and a troubled marriage to come. The illumination of the building at night enables mother and daughter to transcend their habitual patterns of silence and talk of acquaintances from the past in a new freedom of conversation. The mother’s speech becomes for the daughter an engendering presence that rivals the steadfastness of the building’s image. “Maybe it was the darkness with only the pale crack of light that came through the door, the constellations of the magnificent Chrysler Building right beyond us, that allowed us to speak in ways we never had.”
The Chrysler Building “shone like the beacon it was, the largest and best hopes of mankind and its aspirations and desire for beauty” in the night for Lucy. She wanted to tell her mother how she felt about the building, but the years of shielding emotions prevented this disclosure. Yet, her intuitive mother wrote after returning home using a picture postcard of the building, a silent affirmation of the power of the building in their abbreviated five-day experience. Perhaps, though she would deny it, she caught a glimpse of what the building meant to the daughter. Uncomfortably, she saw through that shared window and knew what the carefully dressed women walking on the streets of New York meant to her youngest daughter.
Stroud’s novel is a good place to start a read through the Booker longest. It’s a short novel that can be read in a weekend or a long night. It is technically fresh while delivering philosophical depth. It probes the way culture shapes perception, personality, and the process of societal adaptation. It never whines but explores the shaping influence of economic and class differentiation.