Whiskey, Charlie and Lucy Barton

Whiskey and Charlie by Annabel Smith

whiskeyOccasionally I’ll come across a book that evokes emotions analogous to my own life in some profound way. Circumstances, time, people, and place differ but the tenor resonates. While reading Annabel Smith’s Whiskey and Charlie, someone I dearly love was dealing with the difficulty and awkwardness of preparing for an in-laws death. The situation was complicated by each individual’s manner of coping with the grief and reality of it. As I lent a listening ear, I couldn’t help but compare the emotional climate to that of which I was reading about in Whiskey and Charlie. Indeed fear and uncertainty heightens one’s sense of helplessness.

 

Charlie’s complacent world is jolted when he gets the word that his brother Whiskey has been struck by a car and is lying in a hospital in a coma. The brothers, once inseparable, have grown apart over the past 25 years.

Smith cleverly begins each chapter by implementing the phonetic alphabet ‘a list of the words used in communications to represent the letters of the alphabet, as in E for Echo, T for Tango’.  Each word or name serves as a metaphor to communicate the heart and soul of the story. Beginning with Alpha: William is the first-born of the twin brothers later to take on the nickname Whiskey he is gregarious, confident, and successful. Charlie tries to emulate his brother in their youth, but struggles to keep up and eventually distances himself. He is shy, introspective, and has difficulty expressing himself.

The timeline flips back and forth from present to past, reconstructing Charlie and Whiskey’s relationship. Though told in the third person, it is impossible to not get caught up in the complexity of Charlie’s struggle to reconcile the past with the present. The boys’ mother works to keep the family together. Both young men have found caring, loving, and supportive women who also share in the pain and tragedy of Whiskey’s unresponsive condition. Nearly a full year passes and decisions about whether to keep Whiskey on life support create a growing tension and fear amongst the family members.

This is a thoughtful, tender story portraying credible characters. It is an honest and thought-provoking read making it an excellent book club pick.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

lucybartonElizabeth Strout and Anne Lamott  are two of my favorite authors because they are able to say the things that most of us only think in our heads but may never admit providing rich insight and illumination on the human condition.

I loved The Burgess Boys, so it was with much anticipation that I dove into Strout’s latest book My Name is Lucy Barton. To be honest I wasn’t quite sure if I was reading part of Strout’s own story at first. There is no prologue and the chapters aren’t numbered; the story simply begins.

An intimate setting emerges. Lucy is confined to the hospital for nine weeks when a surgery leaves her with a nasty infection.  Lucy could be a portrait of many women: A wife and mother of two young girls, she is vulnerable and lonely. Her husband has an aversion to hospitals and rarely visits. He hires a woman who will later become his lover to care for their young daughters and arranges for Lucy’s estranged mother to visit her in the hospital.

In the five days that Lucy’s mother stays by her bedside conversations between mother and daughter transpire; gentle at first graduating to raw and revealing. Lucy craves to hear her mother say the words she will never hear. The years of poverty and the chains of shame have left scars and schisms. Desperate for mother’s affection and approval, Lucy emotionally lapses into the child hanging on her mother’s every word. She even reverts to calling her ‘Mommy’.Lucy also yearns for her mother to ask about her life, her family, her career. She never does.

Lucy is writing ‘her own story’ taking advice from a successful author whose workshop she once attended. As Lucy reviews moments of her life, we come to love and sympathize with her. Strout masterfully depicts life’s mundane and ordinary events and casts sentiment and compassion upon her characters: People who could be us.

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