Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout

TitleOh William!
AuthorElizabeth Strout
Finished ReadingDecember 10, 2021

This is Elizabeth Strout’s third book centered on Lucy Barton. First was a book of short stories: My Name is Lucy Barton (2016), followed by Anything is Possible (2017), and now Oh, William (2021). In this story Lucy is grieving over the death of her second husband, David, when she becomes involved with a mystery in her first husband’s life. She remembers the good and the bad of that marriage. As she listens to William tell a story:

“…he looked at me with such pain in his face. Oh William, I thought Oh William!”

Page 160

On the other hand

“…I suddenly had a visceral memory of what a hideous thing marriage was for me at times those years with William: a familiarity so dense it filled up the rom, your throat almost clogged with knowledge of the other so that it seemed to practically press into your nostrils…”

Page 139

Like many of Elizabeth Strout’s stories this novel explores the mysterious connection between our past lives and how it leads to our current lives. This theme is why I pick up any new book she writes. Lucy and William came from impossibly different backgrounds. William was brought up among familial and affluent parents in Massachusetts and New York while Lucy was raised grew up with abusive parents in a shack in rural Illinois. As they drive through a small Maine town Lucy understands the people here as William can not. 

“But I did not tell that to William, who came from Newton, Massachusetts, and not the poor town of Amgash, Illinois, as I had, and who had lived in New  York City for so many years. I had lived in New York City for years as well, but William inhabited it – his tailored suits – and I felt that I had never inhabited New York as he had. Because I never had.”

Page 117

Lucy is in a constant personal battle between her current, successful self and the abused and unloved girl she was. William sees Lucy with more empathy than Lucy does for herself. Recalling his first visit to her childhood home he tells her

“‘Lucy, I married you because you were filled with joy. You were just filled with joy. And when I finally realized what you came from – when we went to your house that day to meet your family and tell them we were getting married, Lucy, I almost died at what you came from. I had no idea that was what you came from. And I kept thinking, ‘But how is she what she is? How could she come from this and have so much exuberance?’ He shook his heave very slowly. ‘And I still don’t know how you did it. You’re unique, Lucy. You’re a spirit…”

Page 198

As the story goes on they discover they are more similar than they realized.

Way back in the early 1970s when I was studying English Literature at the College of Idaho I had a class where we studied the distances between the reader, the narrator, and the subject of the story. The narrator is between the story itself and the reader; different narrators may be closer to the reader or farther away. In general, essay writers put more, formal, distance between themselves and the reader. In college we dutifully plotted out comparative diagrams for various novels, short stories, essays, and poems – and being in college we argued passionately for our takes. I bring this up because I was struck at how very close Lucy Barton is to the reader in this novel. The tone is almost like a conversation with the reader or a tape recording of her thoughts. She gains this closeness through a constant refrain of “I mean” or “What I’m saying.” Some examples:

“I mean, William almost never drank is what I mean,”
“…is part of what I’m saying.”
“People are lonely, is my point here….”
“I mean there was a litheness to her.”

Pages 79, 79, 119, 168

This technique brings us close to Lucy’s side is what I’m trying to say [smile]. 

Although Lucy is not Elizabeth Strout’s most compelling character, I’m glad I waited a couple of weeks to write this report. Coming back to it helped me see this recurring theme in Strout’s novels about the effect of the past on the present and appreciate the novel more. Nevertheless, if you are coming to Elizabeth Strout for the first time, start with The Burgess Boys or Strout’s Pulitizer Prize winning Olive Kitteridge. If you are determined to read about Lucy Barton read the stories in order as outlined in the opening paragraph of this report.  

2 thoughts on “Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout

  1. Howard, I just finished this book yesterday. I agree, reading it is like having a conversation with Lucy. I love getting book reports from you ( an English major). As a science major, I still tend to read the literal side of the story and miss things along the way. Thanks for your perspectives!!

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