Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Oh, William ! by Elizabeth Strout

Oh, William!
by Elizabeth Strout
Published October 2021 by Random House
Source: courtesy of the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review

Publisher's Summary:
I would like to say a few things about my first husband, William. 

Lucy Barton is a writer, but her ex-husband, William, remains a hard man to read. William, she confesses, has always been a mystery to me. Another mystery is why the two have remained connected after all these years. They just are. 

So Lucy is both surprised and not surprised when William asks her to join him on a trip to investigate a recently uncovered family secret—one of those secrets that rearrange everything we think we know about the people closest to us. What happens next is nothing less than another example of what Hilary Mantel has called Elizabeth Strout’s “perfect attunement to the human condition.” There are fears and insecurities, simple joys and acts of tenderness, and revelations about affairs and other spouses, parents and their children. On every page of this exquisite novel we learn more about the quiet forces that hold us together—even after we’ve grown apart. 

At the heart of this story is the indomitable voice of Lucy Barton, who offers a profound, lasting reflection on the very nature of existence. “This is the way of life,” Lucy says: “the many things we do not know until it is too late.”

My Thoughts:
In The New York Times' review of Elizabeth Strout's My Name Is Lucy Barton, Claire Messud called Strout's vision of the world "Protestant and flinty." In Strout's return to Lucy Barton, Protestant and flinty are, again, apt descriptions of her writing. 
"I feel invisible, is what I mean. But I mean it in the deepest way. It is very hard to explain. And I cannot explain it except to say - oh, I don't know what to say! Truly, it is as if I do not exist, I guess is the closest thing I can say. I mean I do not exist in the world. It could be as simple as the fact that we had no mirrors in our house when I was growing up except for a very small one high above the bathroom sink. I really do not know what I mean, except to say that on some very fundamental level, I feel invisible in the world."
Despite being a successful author, Lucy Barton continues to feel invisible and to find it surprisingly difficult to put her feelings into words. Except for when it isn't:
"A tulip stem inside me snapped. This is what I felt. It has stayed snapped, it never grew back. I began to write more truthfully after that."
A childhood of poverty and abuse has led Lucy to live her life feeling "less than," a feeling that was reinforced by a mother-in-law she simultaneously loved and resented. Catherine asked Lucy to call her "Mom" when Lucy married Catherine's son, William. But she found any number of ways to make Lucy feel out of place and beneath her, from giving Lucy hand-me-down nightgowns to giving her a set of golf clubs knowing that Lucy didn't enjoy golfing. So Lucy was as surprised as William when he discovered that Catherine's childhood was not all that different from Lucy's own. 
"How is it that some people know how to do this [cross the lines in our world], and others, like me, still give off the faint smell of what we came from? I would like to know. I will never know. Catherine, with her own scent that she always wore. My point is that there is a cultural blank spot that never ever leaves, only it is not a spot, it is a huge blank canvas and it makes life very frightening."
In Oh, William! Strout explores the ways we never completely escape our upbringing and that cost that trying to do so takes. In her quiet, spare way, she also, as always, explores the lasting relationships between parents and children and spouses, even after divorce. William and Lucy have a complicated relationship that is only underscored by the wonderful relationship Lucy had with her second husband who only recently died. 

I'm a huge fan of Strout's and I love the way she comes back to characters again and again (this is her third book that includes Lucy), even working characters from other books into her stories (here characters from The Burgess Boys show up). While some readers may read this book and feel that they are missing something by not having read My Name Is Lucy Barton (and I kept wondering if I was forgetting things from that book), in looking back at my review, and others, of that book, I find that Strout left somethings to the readers' imaginations before as she does again here. You're getting all you need to have to understand Lucy. This one crept up on me and my appreciation of it grows even after I finished reading it. If you're a fan of Strout's, you'll enjoy this one. If you're new to her work, understand that this is a quiet, slow-paced book that is filled with introspection. It will make you think, if you have patience. I'm glad I did.


  1. Strout is a favorite and I can't wait to read this book. Great review, Lisa!

  2. Wonderful review Lisa! I love Strout as well. I find her stories are like that, as you say - they creep up on you and leave you with so many feelings and thoughts. I can’t wait to read this one!