Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout

Reviewed by Harriet

I first encountered Elizabeth Strout back in February 2017 – according to my review at the time [here] I’d spotted My Name is Lucy Barton on the Booker long-list (it had been published the previous year and was just out in paperback) and decided to give it a try. I was completely hooked, and so when only three months later Strouts’ Anything is Possible was published I couldn’t wait to read it. Set in Amgash, Illinois, Lucy’s home town and the site of the terrible poverty and abuse of her childhood, that novel sort of circles round Lucy through people that knew her, though she herself doesn’t appear till the end [see review here]. It’s been a four-year wait, but here we are back with Lucy again. She’s older, (63), recently widowed, a famous novelist, with two grown-up, married daughters. William Gerhardt is her first husband, divorced many years earlier. Oh William! tells the story of their relationship, past and present, but also frequently strays into memories of her childhood, with all its horrors, never fully set out but easily guessed at:

There have been a few times – and I mean recently – when I feel the curtains of my childhood descend around me once again. A terrible enclosure, a quiet horror … the sense of doom I grew up with.

But this is a novel about complicated feelings. When Lucy talks about her father’s PTSD (though she didn’t know what it was called back then) she describes a man whose symptoms are so distressing that she can’t bear to speak of them – ‘I am not going to say any more about this. But I loved him, my father. I did’.  As for William, the father of her daughters, to whom she was married for twenty years, she sometimes hates him, sometimes pities him, sometimes loves him. But their relationship is undoubtedly a deep one, probably a better friendship than they had during their marriage, since William was serially unfaithful. Now, however, he confides his frequent night terrors to Lucy, telling her that he gets through them by reminding himself that he can always call her, no matter what the hour. It’s Lucy he calls when his third wife walks out on him without warning, shockingly removing furniture and rugs but leaving behind the expensive vase William had given her for Christmas. And when Lucy’s beloved second husband dies, it’s William who she calls first and who comes round to comfort and sit with her. 

Although this is not what you’d call a plot-driven novel, being full of digressions and flashbacks, there is a central story. One of their daughters has given William a subscription to an ancestry website, and from it he has discovered that he has a half-sister living in Maine, apparently abandoned by their mother when she left her potato farmer husband for the German refugee who had been assigned to their farm. He asks Lucy to accompany him to Maine on a voyage of discovery, possibly including a visit to this newly discovered relative. Central Maine is probably the poorest, bleakest part of the United States – a land of endless potato fields and dilapidated houses – and both William and Lucy are shocked, Lucy because it puts her in mind of the poverty and deprivation of her own upbringing, William because he realises that this is where his beautiful, confident, sophisticated mother Catherine came from. The resonances for both of them when they find the tiny shack that was Catherine’s birthplace are overwhelming. Her journey clearly both parallels and contrasts with Lucy’s, and its hard for them to decide whether they should admire her for so reinventing herself or deplore her for walking out on her husband and young child. 

All this is fascinating and absorbing, and Strout is wonderfully gifted at conveying the complex feelings between two people who know each other so well and have such a varied history together. But the other thing that makes the novel stand out is the way the story is told. The narrative voice is simple, sometimes rambling and digressive, actually very much like a long conversation with a close friend or entries in a journal. There’s no fancy writing here: Lucy favours short sentences – ‘What a strange thing life is!’, ‘I was so happy!’ ‘Oh, it changed!’. There are many ‘Oh’s in the novel, and many exclamation marks. Lucy often ends statements with ‘I guess’ or ‘I suppose’. But don’t be fooled by this simplicity: the issues that are raised here are serious and well-considered. Above all, though, it’s such a joy to spend time with Lucy, to ponder how well she has managed to escape the privations of her upbringing, and to comprehend the lasting damage it has done her, leaving her, as she says, often feeling that she is invisible. Strout has described this as the third volume in a trilogy, and much as I’d like to think there may be more to come, I suspect this will be the last word on Lucy. But who knows?

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Harriet is a co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Elizabeth Strout, Oh, William! (Viking, 2021). 978-0241508176, 256pp., hardback.

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