The title of Elizabeth Strout’s novel suggests that her protagonist is obsessed with naming. In fact, naming has been central to her experience since she was a child. Her early years in school were defined by her struggle to name the words she discovered and the actions she observed in others. She was victimized by the names her classmate called her, directly or by inference.
Lucy and her mother name her nurses, preferring their own pet names to the given names of these persons who come in and out the sanctuary of the sickroom. Together they struggle to name persons whose lives somehow fill out and enlarge their shared experience. Lucy would like to name the emotion that hangs between the two women, but her mother closes her eyes and refuses to cross that line. Her pet name “Wizzle” is sufficient for all that is unsayable.
There are things that Lucy is reluctant to name. She can’t say the word “snake,” and she shies away from the “Thing” that involves her father and penetrates every page of the novel. She knows that as a writer, she has assumed the obligation of naming, and she worries about the injunction to be “ruthless.” She puzzles over the reluctance of the writer Sarah Payne to give her name when the two first met in the New York clothing shop, but she comes to understand what it means to own words published in black and white.
Lucy came of age with parents who found it difficult to name their past as well as the present. Her father’s denial of the two young German civilians he killed in WWII when he was barely older than a boy is a failure of naming that overshadows his life and figures in his rejection of the German heritage of the man Lucy marries. That family horror lingers , leaving Lucy with an unnamed conflict over her husband’s inheritance of money from an ancestor whose profits had come from the war. Her nightmares related fears that a Nazi would imprison her and take her children.
Much is left unnamed in this novel–the breakup of Lucy’s first marriage, the relationships of her daughters with their stepmother, her rise to fame as a novelist, her choice of second partner. It is far easier for Lucy to name the cornfields of her youth and the skyline of her adulthood than it is to name her conflicted emotions over her own role as mother. She is after all her mother’s daughter.