Oh William!: Elizabeth Strout

Published by Penguin Random House

“Because I’m 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 Barton, whom we first meet as a young woman in My Name is Lucy Barton, is now middle-aged. She is a successful writer, divorced from her first husband William, and is now widowed after the death of her second husband David. Lucy and William, who still keep in touch, have two adult daughters. William is now married to Estelle, his third wife, and the couple have a child.  

William’s seemingly comfortable life is about to turn upside down. For his 70th birthday, Estelle gives him a subscription to a website where you can research your family. Soon after that, Estelle leaves William, taking their daughter with her.

William is devastated and completely lost. To make matters worse, when he finally logs onto the website to look into his late mother’s background, he discovers something about her that undermines everything he has believed.

He turns to Lucy—the one who knows him best—and suggests that she go with him to Maine to find out more about his mother. 

The book is narrated by Lucy. As she tells the story, she remembers the time she and William were together. The book is a portrait of a long relationship: the annoyances and the love, and the things we know—or don’t—about the person closest to us.

Lucy’s tone is straightforward, matter-of-fact and acutely observant. Writing about William, at 70, walking most of the way to his university every morning, Lucy says:

“He took heart in the fact that he could pass many people…and this made him feel healthy and alive and almost invulnerable in a world of constant traffic. He was proud that he walked more than ten thousand steps a day. William felt (almost) invulnerable, is what I am saying here.” But he is not invulnerable. He is getting old, and the emotional shocks are hard to take. 

Lucy has her secrets too. She comes from a poor family and had a difficult childhood. Her mother either neglected her or was nasty to her. And there is clearly trauma in her childhood but you never learn what it was—she only alludes to it. Like her second husband David, who was raised in the Hassidic community and left it, Lucy grew up without television or any kind of popular entertainment. As a result, she lacks the common experiences that people share which, she feels, puts her at a disadvantage. This is partly what had brought her and David together.

Lucy really loved David: he was caring and easy, unlike William. But oddly enough, it was William who made her feel safe—maybe because he knew how to navigate a world that Lucy only entered when she left home for university.

Lucy and William do not have an easy marriage. William hides behind his work, and Lucy finds him hard to fathom. Looking back, Lucy remembers hating William sometimes, who with “his pleasant distance, his mild expressions…was unavailable.”

There are so many little moments of insight in this book, often drawn from closely observed details. But one of the most memorable is when Lucy and William are driving in Maine, and Lucy tells him that he married someone just like his mother. William pulls over and turns to her and says: “Lucy, I married you because you were filled with joy. You were just filled with joy. And when I finally realized where you came from…I kept thinking, But how is she what she is? How could she come from this and have so much exuberance?” Lucy, until then, had come across as a sensible, reliable person. And in that passage, you see her as William once saw her, and it brings out a completely different side to her.

This is the third book in a quartet about Lucy Barton. I enjoyed the first one, My Name is Lucy Barton, and reading this makes me want to read the other two.

Oh William! is a minutely drawn portrait of what keeps people together: the small things we do to keep the peace, the frustrations we store inside, the memories we hold onto, and the secrets we keep from those closest to us.

Read my review of My Name is Lucy Barton.

Buy from Bookshop.org UK / Bookshop.org USA

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