Oh William! follows the same ensemble of characters as Elizabeth Strout’s finely honed novel My name is Lucy Barton,and the accompanying collection of stories Anything is Possible (reviewed here),  and I did wonder what more she could bring to this new novel. She had plumbed the aches of sadness, estrangement, poverty and mental illness in her earlier work, and her evocation of living with hurt, with isolation, but also love and beauty, was piercing. What more could she wring from the familiar cast in the small town outside Chicago? I need not have doubted. Oh William! is another extraordinary insight into being human.

When the novel opens, Lucy is mourning her second husband, David, a man who was the love of her life and whom she misses deeply. William is her first husband, whom she had married soon after college, and they were married twenty years with two daughters. His affairs, her thwarted ambition, his absence, all led to the end of the marriage, but they have remained friends. When he invites her to accompany him to Maine to explore an explosive piece of family history he has uncovered, she agrees, albeit reluctantly. She, and his subsequent wives, have always taken care of him and always been under-appreciated; the rewards, in the end, not enough for any of them. 

At times in our marriage I loathed him. I saw, with a kind of dull disc of dread in my chest, that with his pleasant distance, his mild expressions, he was unavailable. But worse. Because beneath his height of pleasantness there lurked a juvenile crabbiness, a scowl that flickered across his soul, a pudgy little boy with his lower lip thrust forward who blamed this person and that person—he blamed me, I felt this often. He was blaming me for something that had nothing to do with our present lives…

It is this needling from the past that propels their journey. There is no escape from the past, though the pain is buried deep. The history they explore relates to William’s mother, Catherine, who entered Lucy’s life as her prospective mother-in-law, a woman very different to Lucy’s own withdrawn, sometimes abusive mother. ‘We loved her. Oh, we loved her … She was vibrant; her face was often filled with light.’ Yet Catherine is not all she seems. Early on, a lack of empathy, a controlling presence, jar the reader, and the book turns on the slow reveal about Catherine and her past. Catherine has reimagined her life at a terrible cost. 

Lucy has also recreated herself, more than once. She left her family, who live in desperate poverty, to take up a scholarship, and we understand here that in leaving William she felt she had abandoned her (grown) daughters. 

But William asks her, are we free to choose, or is that an illusion, even an act of egoism? ‘We just do—we just do Lucy …’ Lucy is taken aback: 

It had felt like a choice to me then. But remembering this now, I realised that also during that whole year I made no motion to put myself back inside the marriage. I kept myself separate.

What she understands is that our actions may not be self-indulgent but necessary. Likewise, we see Catherine acting to save herself. The pain she carried and which seeped into William was a consequence, perhaps inevitable.  

Strout’s ability to take us inside a character’s personal journey, to walk with them, is on every page, in everyday banalities—cleaning teeth, filling a car with petrol—and in their memories. Lucy recounts how once she was missing her parents so much she called them from the fancy lobby of the hotel where she and William were staying. Lucy suffered terrible privations in childhood yet the loneliness of new experiences, of feeling out of place, drove her to seek comfort in the familiar, even when it was a source of hurt.  ‘And I said, I just blurted it out, I said, “Daddy, we’re in Puerto Rico with William’s mother and I don’t know what to do! I don’t know what to do in a place like this!”’ And she is comforted.

We are always in Lucy’s frame of reference. She takes us aside, into her private musings:  ‘Please try to understand this …’,  ‘I should have mentioned earlier …’ or ‘I will tell you just one more thing …’ Strout’s deliberation with words and their placement creates space, slowing us down. She uses few contractions. 

The complexity of women and men is infinite and under Strout’s observant eye, the motives and actions of her characters resonate. Her handling of private trauma is as deft as ever.

Published first in the Newtown Review of Books.

Elizabeth Strout Oh William! Penguin HB 256pp $29.99


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