Tag Archives: Manhattan

Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout 

The title of this novel is like a sigh of exasperation, borne out of familiarity. The sigh is repeated many times by Lucy Barton, the narrator of this novel. Lucy is a novelist, and Elizabeth Strout has already presented two novels narrated by her: My Name is Lucy Barton and Anything is Possible. Both these have been reviewed on Bookword (see below).

Elizabeth Strout enjoys revisiting her characters, developing their stories forwards or backwards to reflect further on their lives. She has also done it with Olive Kitteridge. However, knowledge of the previous two novels ‘by Lucy Barton’ is not necessary to enjoy Oh William! In this novel she is primarily focused on William Gerhardt, Lucy’s first husband.

Oh William!

William and Lucy were once married, and since their divorce both have remarried, William twice. At the time of the story, they are almost 70 years old. They have two daughters, now grown up, and remain on cordial terms. The action of this novel begins when William’s third wife leaves him unexpectedly, and when he discovers that his mother had hidden a family secret from him. He discovers this through a heredity website soon after Estelle left. The discovery leads William and Lucy on a road trip to Maine to check it out.

Before we get to this point in the novel, we have learned quite a bit about their back stories, in particular their married life, and their subsequent marriages. Both have been profoundly influenced by their childhood experiences: Lucy by the poverty of her home and the distance from her parents; William by his relationship with his mother, and her marriage to his father. There are some interesting contrasts: Lucy’s father experienced PSTD as a result of his experiences in Europe in the Second World War. William’s father was a German pow sent to the US.

The trip to Maine takes us into the decline of rural America; everywhere is closed, towns are deserted, farms abandoned, diners few and far between. The contrast with New York and their lives in the city could hardly be greater. 

We passed a sign that said: Welcome to Friendly Fort Fairfield.
William leaned forward to peer through the windshield. “Jesus Christ,” he said.
I said, “Yeah. My God.”
Everything in the town was closed. There was not a car on the street, and there was a place that said Village Commons – an entire building – with a sign on it: FOR LEASE. There was a big First National Bank with pillars; it had planks nailed across its doors. Store after store had been boarded up. Only a small post office by the end of Main Street seemed open. There was a river that ran behind Main Street. 
“Lucy, what happened?”
“I have no idea.” But it was a really spooky place. Not a coffee shop, not a dress store or drugstore, there was absolutely nothing open in that town, and we drove back up Main Street again where there was not a car in sight, and then we left. (133-4)

The theme of desolation continues. When William finally catches up with his mother’s secret, it is Lucy, not William, who investigates further.

The lives of these two are bound up through shared experiences, their children and a familiarity and affection that has remained. They both must come to terms with the departure of their most recent partners. In Lucy’s case this is her second husband who died, whereas Estelle, the mother of William’s third daughter, has moved in with another man. They are making sense of their lives through their understanding of the past, and their grasp of their parents’ histories too. 

Judgement about their lives will be left to the reader, as the opening sentence makes clear. 

I would like to say a few things about my first husband. (3)

There will be no judgement, it seems. She concludes

But we are all mythologies, mysterious. We are all mysteries, is what I mean.

This may be the only thing in the world I know to be true. (237)

That Lucy is telling William’s story feels right.

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. (4-5)

The novel is narrated as if we were sitting next to Lucy on a sofa. The style is conversational, but thoughtful too. One of Elizabeth Strout’s skills is revealed in that long extract: moving the action along through everyday speech. She is also excellent at detail. William peering through the windshield, the large bank now boarded up. We learn about his clothes (trousers that are too short) and his mannerisms (stroking his moustache). These details are again everyday, and they lend the story a certain pathos. 

Like all her novels, this is a very readable book, and one which respects the reader, and appeals to our imaginations. 

A word about the cover: I have the paperback edition, and I am charmed by the image on the front cover, especially the addition of gold and red to enhance the details. The inside cover is also very charming and a contrast of a rural scene to the Manhattan skyline of the front cover. No credit is given to the designer. 

Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout, first published in 2021. I used the Penguin paperback edition. 240pp

Related posts:

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (March 2017)

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout (February 2018)

Also

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (June 2016)

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout (August 2020)

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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney

Manhattan – the last time I was there was in 1969. It was so unfamiliar to me when I picked up this novel that I had to relearn the names and order of the Avenues, and look up the position of some of the most famous landmarks. I also had to use a Google map to follow Lillian Boxfish’s path through the city. I am not surprised that Daunt Books published this, as a bookseller Daunt’s is associated with travel books and the novel is so strongly set in the city of New York. 

I remember New York as a lively city, full of excitement and strangeness. It was noisy and dirty and I imagined I would be back soon. This was my return. And it was such fun. Lillian Boxfish was an ideal walking companion, a flâneuse with class.

This is the 49th novel in the series championing older women in fiction in order to make them more visible. You can find the complete list of reviews and suggested books in the series here.

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk

The book is set in 1984/5 beginning on New Year’s Eve. Finding herself alone on an evening which is typically celebrated in company, Lillian decides to take a walk. She has lived in Manhattan since 1921 and so now she walks first to her usual Italian restaurant, then to another in south Manhattan, then to a party in Chelsea and finally home. On the way she passes some landmarks of her life and we learn about her history.

The plot is tightly focused on Manhattan. Lillian does not stray further north than 42nd Street. The city has changed since she moved there in the 1920s: muggers, skyscrapers, the new World Trade Towers, loft conversions, Korean-run bodegas and so forth. We also get to reflect on how the city has continued to change since then.

Lillian Boxfish

Lillian is 84/5 and inspired by the real life Margaret Fishback. Like her inspiration,  Lillian has worked as a copywriter for Macy’s store, becoming rich and successful as a result of her poetic sales pitches. She also wrote books of guidance for young women and verse, often humorous, including for greetings cards when she lost her job at Macy’s. She was successful, she was well paid and had a lively social life. Unlike her contemporaries did not want to get married. But Lillian fell in love and married Max, and later became pregnant. 

Of course she lost her job when she became pregnant. This was the late 1930s. Her husband, being Italian-speaking, spent the war years away, and their lives were not the same on his return. They became less happy together and he was unfaithful. She descended into alcoholism, and an attempted suicide before being sent to a sanatorium and receiving electric shock treatment. 

By the time of this walk Max, her husband, had been dead for many years. His second wife is dying and her son Johnny lives with his own family away from the city in Maine. Her best friend also died a few years earlier. Her new friend is welcoming, but their shared interests are limited. She has no-one to share her New Year’s meal with.

Despite her isolation Lillian is a very sociable person, speaking to many strangers on her perambulation. She is also not your stereotypical elder, not scared of the city, even at night. When she meets a group of three muggers as she returns home, she stands up to them and a curious and successful bargain is struck. The incident reminds us of a conversation with her son early in the novel. He requested that she should not walk on the streets and reminded her about the Subway Vigilante who shot four young muggers when they asked him for five dollars. What if she had taken her grandsons on the subway? The people of New York are idolising him, she says.

‘I walk everywhere dearest,’ I say. And it’s true: I like the exercise, and the subway cars are graffitied with so much text it’s like being screamed at, like the voices inside my head and everyone else’s have manifested their yelling outside, ill-spelled with spray paint. ‘And we weren’t on that train. And he isn’t shooting elderly ladies and adorable tots.’
‘But guys like the guys he shot are everywhere. Hoods. Gangs. Toughs. Whatever you want to call them.’
‘I would not resist if young thugs approached me for money,’ I say. ‘I would acquiesce. I agree with Governor Cuomo that a vigilante spirit is dangerous. Rude, too.’
‘Rude?’ he says.
‘Yes Gian. Incivility is not incivility’s antidote. […] New Year is bigger than any mugger, the way it makes people feel. Being old is depressing. The Subway Vigilante is depressing. But I love it here, this big rotten apple. I’m near my old haunts, my sycamore trees, my trusty R.H. Macy’s.’ (11-12)

We can see she is a woman of considerable spirit, although her breakdown which we learn about half way through was so serious she needed shock treatment to recover. And we learn at the end of the book, she did not acquiesce to the muggers, but together they struck their own bargain. She’s a lively creature, who maintains her standards, especially of honesty and of engaging respectfully with others. 

The extract above also illustrates a feature of this book. The reader is given insight into her thoughts, which are often witty ripostes or reflections on the world as she sees it. We notice by this means the rich inner life she has cultivated for herself, that she has not been diminished by her experiences or by her age. She has loved many aspects of her life, and been as much in charge of it as she could be.  

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney published in 2017. UK publisher is Daunt Books. 277pp

Recent posts in the Older Women in Fiction Series

Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout.

Frangipani House by Beryl Gilroy

The Old Woman and the River by Ismail Fahd Ismail

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Filed under Books, Books and Walking, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews, Travelling with books, Writing and Walking