Booker book review #4 – “Oh William!” by Elizabeth Strout

Elizabeth Strout is an American author who has published nine novels. The first four took her fourteen years, after which she well and truly found a groove and has published a further five in the last six years. Oh William!, her eighth novel, was published at the end of last year, in time for it to be shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize, and in the meantime she has published Lucy By the Sea. Fast work! This latest novel, in common with Oh William!, and her 2016 novel My Name is Lucy Barton, share the same central character. I have been aware of Elizabeth Strout for a while and have wanted to read some of her work but never quite got round to it so it is great to have a reason to come to it now.

Oh William! begins in New York city and our narrator is Lucy Barton, a newly widowed novelist. She has long been divorced from her former husband William Gerhardt, an academic, but has remained on good terms with him. They have two adult married daughters and William has had a further two marriages, first to Joanne, one of his lovers during his marriage to Lucy, and then to Estelle, an actress, with whom he also has a young daughter, Bridget. Lucy is friendly with Estelle too, and attends William’s 70th birthday party at their home. It is at the party that Lucy first senses all is not well in William’s marriage. Lucy and Estelle are very different people and Lucy clearly finds William’s new and much younger wife somewhat shallow. 

We learn from the outset that two things happen to William that will affect Lucy deeply and change the course of events in both her and William’s life, but we are almost a third of the way through the book before we learn what even the first of these events is. Strout makes Lucy a fascinating narrator, who goes all around the houses to tell us a story. Before getting to the first event we learn a great deal about her loveless childhood, brought up in a deprived and emotionally neglectful household. Lucy was only able to go to college thanks to the kindness of one of her teachers who took her in hand. We also learn a great deal about William, his deep flaws, and in particular the behaviour which would eventually lead Lucy to leave him. He was a withdrawn and complicated character who left pretty much all the child-rearing to
Lucy, a particularly difficult task for her given how little parenting she had herself received. 

It was not just the string of extra-marital affairs that made their relationship untenable. William’s mother, although superficially kind, had secrets and her relationship with her only son was a complex one from which Lucy was very much excluded. I’m not sure how much of this detail, particularly concerning the nature of Lucy and William’s marriage, is a repeat of the content of My Name is Lucy Barton, but it has very much made me want to read that novel now. Even if there is duplication, Lucy is such a warm, chatty and candid narrator, I don’t think it would matter.

The second seismic event to occur in William’s life is that he finds out his mother had a daughter before him, something she never told him about while she was alive. He is curious but also fearful about what he will find out. With Estelle gone, William finds himself turning to Lucy more than ever. He asks her to accompany him on a trip to Maine to seek out his half-sister and during this trip they go over a lot of history, both the past they shared and that which they didn’t. It is a portrait of a marriage, of a post-marriage relationship, and of how time can alter our perspectives on events. We get a sense of William’s decreasing potency, and ultimately his lack of making his mark on the world; he is ageing and the shock reduces him. 

It is also during this trip that William and Lucy take together that they go over some of the ground they never covered in the aftermath of the end of their marriage. There is more than just a physical journey under way. Both of them will emerge from it changed, but in different ways. It all adds up to a powerful narrative on how our lives can be rendered unstable by events when the foundations are built on truths untold, not only to others but to ourselves also. 

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I loved its gentleness, the deft portrayal of character and the exploration of how people respond differently to the events of life. Highly recommended and this has definitely made me want to read more of Elizabeth Strout’s work.

Author: Julia's books

Reader. Writer. Mother. Partner. Friend. Friendly.

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