Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout


This is the third Elizabeth Strout novel I’ve read with Lucy Barton at the center. A fourth one was published in September. In this one Lucy is the narrator and takes a conversational tone with us:

Because I am a novelist, I have to write this almost like a novel, but it is true—as true as I can make it. And I want to say—oh, it is difficult to know what to say! But when I report something about William it is because he told it to me or because I saw it with my own eyes.

Lucy, as we learned in My Name is Lucy Barton, grew up in an awful family, and while nothing was spelled out, apparently there was abuse along with the extreme poverty. School employees saved her by letting her stay in the building after school where she was warm and could do homework. The high school guidance counselor took her under her wing and made college possible. Her isolation meant she had did not have the mainstream popular culture knowledge as she grew up; nevertheless, Lucy became a successful author. She had married William, they had two daughters and she left William when the daughters were grown.

When her mother-in-law, Catherine, took Lucy and William to the Cayman Islands for a vacation when they were young, Lucy felt her own “otherness” acutely. She was amazed to see people by the pool, looking sophisticated, raising their arms to order drinks and wondered how they knew what to do. She says, “…in that situation I had the strangest sensation of both being invisible and yet having a spotlight on my head that said:  This young woman knows nothing.” I imagine everyone has those feelings, at least everyone that ventures into situations that are new. Lucy, by virtue of her isolation, had those feelings more often.

Lucy and William had been divorced for decades and had been on friendly terms for many years when William’s third wife left him when he was 70 years old. Around the same time he learned that his mother had been married and had a child before she married his father. William, not surprisingly, was in great distress. Lucy agreed to travel with him to Maine to learn more about his mother’s previous life and to see where his half sister lived.

When they met at the airport in New York, Lucy focused on William’s attire:

When William met me at Laguardia Airport I saw him from afar and I saw that his khakis were too short. A little bit this broke my heart. He wore loafers, and his socks were blue, not a dark blue and not a light blue, and they showed a few inches until his khakis covered them. Oh William, I thought. Oh William!

And later in the midst of an argument, she says, “And you could wear a pair of pants that were long enough for another thing. Your khakis are too short and it depresses the hell out of me. Jesus, William, you look like a dork.”

Lucy at her least appealing. William does laugh at the notion of Lucy giving fashion advice and their disagreement dissolved.

While the conversational style pulls the reader along in an appealing way, I am uncertain how I feel about the ride. Oh William! does have the distinction of being on the shortlist for the Booker Prize.

Elizabeth Strout, Oh William! Random House, 2021, 256 pages (I read the kindle version). Available in the public library.

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