I have read a plethora of novels in my life—many good, several bad, and a handful of great ones. At this point, what I want a book to deliver, even more than memorable characters or an exciting plot, is something new. Something original. Dear Lucy, the debut novel from Julie Sarkissian, is told largely through the point of view of Lucy, a developmentally disabled teenage girl. Lucy’s disjointed take on reality is surprisingly lovely and reminds readers that intelligence comes in many different forms.
Dear Lucy manages to recreate the world from Lucy’s unusual perspective. Strongly tactile, she compares what she sees to physical sensations—to Lucy, a light looks how warm feels and dirt is like touching the fur of an animal. Lucy’s tilted perspective is far from limiting. Instead, her disability affords her a vantage point from which she notices rich, often overlooked details that she constantly tries to piece together. This is what is most exciting about this novel: through Lucy’s unexpected observations, Sarkissian compels her readers to stop and reconsider the familiar.
Lucy has been sent to live on a farm by her mother who is unfit to raise a special needs child. There she lives with a couple—called only “Mister” and “Missus”—and Samantha, a pregnant teenager. Samantha quickly befriends Lucy, perhaps recognizing in her another troubled soul. From this relationship the plot unfurls, as we learn Missus has designs on adopting Samantha’s unborn child. The desire to protect Samantha and her baby lead Lucy away from the simple observations that have marked her understanding up until this point. Complex and often dark, the story moves in ways unexpected and often challenging to young Lucy. She is forced to confront the vagaries and nuances of human nature and discover her special role.
Most often narrated through the disjointed, yet lyrical perspective of Lucy, the book also relies upon the first person points of view of Missus and Samantha. While this decision could easily be chalked up to a desire of the author’s to fill in holes in the plot that Lucy is unable to explain or understand, it doesn’t feel like a crutch. On the contrary, Sarkissian has so deftly crafted Lucy’s keen eye for detail that there is little she seems incapable of illuminating—even if Lucy merely provides the pieces of a puzzle, it is up to the reader to put them together. What these alternative perspectives offer are varied approaches to the same story. Each character’s understanding is both clearer and more muddied than the next. Sarkissian stacks and layers them, building something that comes close to capturing the complicated essence of truth.
Yet the heart of the book remains its title, Dear Lucy. Because so much of the book is told through Lucy’s point of view, the reader becomes accustomed to her interior life and in many ways sympathetic to how the world refuses to cooperate with her understanding of it. When Lucy wants something, she often goes about attaining it in a convoluted and at times counter-productive manner. For instance, in the first chapter, we learn that it is Lucy’s job on the farm to gather the eggs in the morning. She has earned this role by being gentle with them, a fact that Mister observed and of which Lucy is keenly proud. When she drops an egg one morning and is scolded by Mister, she reminds him of how she is gentle she is and insists that Missus tell him. However, she ignores Lucy’s demands and goes on making breakfast. Lucy observes:
Missus has to tell him I am gentle with the eggs. But she is stirring and watching the grits go around and she is not saying anything. I think it is the stirring that makes it so Missus cannot remember how good I am with the eggs. I need to make her stop. I take Missus’ stirring elbow with my strength because the stirring is making her forget because of how many times the spoon goes around and around. She stops stirring. Now is when she will say it! She closes her eyes longer than blinking. Then she opens them. Now she needs to open her mouth too, so the words will come.
It is easy for the reader to recognize how frustrating and seemingly illogical Lucy’s actions would appear to those around her. However, once we climb inside the mind of Lucy, we understand her behavior. Lucy is always seeking to understand, to make causal connections, and to act out of logic, even if her logic is reductive and limited by her disability. In this scene, given her belief that the grits are causing Missus to ignore her, Lucy’s actions are nothing but reasonable. This is the brilliance of Sarkissian: she has created in Lucy a character who is entirely relatable despite her fractured way of thinking.
Dear Lucy is an easy book to enjoy. However, it’s a book with subtle complexities and a deeper message about the resiliency of the human spirit that will stay with the reader long after she has put it down. Sarkissian has emerged as a brave new writer with a unique voice and exciting vision.