Dear Lucy by Julie Sarkissian (Simon & Schuster; 352 pages; $25).
I have never felt fiercely protective of a character before, but the urge to shield Lucy, the main speaker in Julie Sarkissian’s quirky, unique, and weirdly beautiful debut, Dear Lucy, overtook me. And there’s a good reason why: Lucy is developmentally delayed and has issues with behavior and language yet she is filled with determination and love. Lucy is limited, yes, but she looks at the world with wonder and sees it as full of possibility. Lucy is extraordinary and she certainly becomes special to us as her eyes are open to the beauty around her.
“It is time to get the eggs. Time for my best thing,” Lucy says. “I get the eggs for our breakfast. They are alive. When you eat something that is alive you take the life for yourself. You can’t think of it as taking life from another thing, you think of it as giving life to yourself.” This sentiment comes from Lucy’s friend, Samantha. “Samantha knows” because “there is something growing inside of her too.” Samantha, a pregnant teenager, is also one of the narrators in Dear Lucy. She does not want her baby; instead, she plans on giving the child up for adoption.
Sarkissian sets Dear Lucy on an isolated and rather mysterious farm. The setting makes the story dark and desolate and allows a sense of menace to loom over the entire novel. Mister and Missus, owners of the farm, only add to the story’s doom-and-gloom environment. Missus functions as Sarkissian’s third and final narrator.
The author could have told her tale solely from Lucy’s perspective, but then we would not have so many different windows and perceptions of the story, making Dear Lucy richer and more satisfying. Sarkissian writes each narrator in Dear Lucy with vulnerability, though some characters are more defenseless than others. Weakness is sometimes overt, like with Lucy and Samantha; other times, helplessness can be hidden, as it is with Missus, who feels inadequate for not giving her husband a son.
Dear Lucy gives up its secrets slowly yet pleasingly, building mystery and suspense. Especially when Sarkissian reveals the reason why Lucy is on the farm. Lucy gets a thought into her head and cannot let it go. Because she is so single-minded, she can be willful and even prone to violence. Her impulses rule her, leading me to wonder if perhaps her hypothalamus is to blame for her behavior. Lucy’s mother could not handle her daughter any longer and put her in the care of Mister and Missus.
Lucy believes her stay on the farm is temporary and believes her Mum mum will return for her, as she promised. She must listen to Mister and Missus always so they will allow her to stay on the farm, where “Mum mum will know where to find” her. Lucy takes this literally and is loath to even get in a car or go on foot off the farm. She longs for her mother and yearns to be called “Dear Lucy” as Mum mum wraps Lucy in her arms protectively and lovingly.
The farm becomes a haven of sorts for Lucy as she waits for Mum mum. She develops an attachment to Samantha and to the chickens from whom she collects the eggs. Lucy is so happy when Samantha gives birth and decides to keep the son she delivers, but her world comes crashing down when Samantha’s baby is taken from her. Samantha begs Lucy for help.
Lucy then sets out on an adventure like no other, a journey that takes her farther away from the farm than she has ever been. She worries Mum mum will not be able to find her again, but Lucy presses on. She is not alone on her mission. Jennifer, a talking chicken, accompanies her and tells Lucy what to do. Jennifer is everything that Lucy is not: tough, smart, mature, and wise. For me, the chicken was a part of Lucy’s psyche that appeared right when she needed it the most.
Dear Lucy is told in three distinctive and gorgeous voices. Sarkissian’s imagination, originality, and amazing talent captivated me and would not let me go. Eerie and atmospheric, Dear Lucy reads like southern gothic, unsettling and intriguing and at the same time urging the reader and Lucy onward.