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.
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
My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout (March 2017)
Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout (February 2018)
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (June 2016)
Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout (August 2020)