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Oh William!

Review

Oh William!

Readers of Elizabeth Strout’s previous work featuring Lucy Barton will feel right at home in OH WILLIAM!, which centers on her relationship with her first husband, William Gerhardt, years after their 20-year marriage is over.

Although Lucy left William when their daughters were in college (for very good reasons, which were mostly his affairs with other women), they have maintained a civil and sometimes friendly relationship. So when William begins to suffer from troubling night terrors, he turns to Lucy for solace: “To get over this terror while he lay awake in bed next to his sleeping wife --- he told me this that day, and it kind of killed me --- he would think of me.” Who else but Lucy would understand the terror featuring his mother Catherine, who has been dead for years? This is the kind of intimacy that can’t be duplicated by later loves or even spouses.

"Lucy Barton is a novelist, like her creator, so her delivery of the story is artful... [F]ans of Strout’s work will welcome the further revelations, both large and small, of her protagonist."

Fast forward two years. William’s younger wife has left him, and he has discovered, through genetic testing, that he has a living half-sister. He had known that his mother (who he has always called Catherine) left a first marriage for his father, who was a German POW working on her husband’s farm. What he didn’t know was that she left not only a husband, but also a one-year-old daughter, who is now in her 70s. He asks Lucy to accompany him to Maine to explore his past, and she agrees.

As they drive through the ailing towns, Lucy catalogs his moods, and hers, as she remembers both what infuriated and intrigued her about her often distant husband: “My point is: What is it that William knew about me and that I knew about him that caused us to get married?” It’s a fishing expedition of sorts for their past, their present and their future selves. As Strout herself puts it in a Goodreads note about this novel, “I am never really interested in Good or Bad, but instead in all the murky imperfections of people that make up their lives.” Naturally, their daughters wonder if they are getting back together. Soon this reader was wondering the same thing.

Lucy Barton is a novelist, like her creator, so her delivery of the story is artful, although it meanders at times. It also presents an interesting complication when she meets the half-sister, who resents being left out of Lucy’s telling of her husband’s past in a previous Lucy novel. Pretty meta, right? I had forgotten how halting Lucy’s narrative voice can be, although Strout’s past books in her viewpoint also have this characteristic: “This is what I almost felt. This is what I felt.” Or a long paragraph about her horrible childhood that ends with “There was no escape” is followed by the sentence, “When I was young there was no escape, is what I am saying.” It’s an intimate, informal way of telling the story, as though she’s figuring it out as she goes, but for me it began to cross the line into distracting.

Still, fans of Strout’s work will welcome the further revelations, both large and small, of her protagonist. “But we are all mythologies, mysterious. We are all mysteries, is what I mean.”

Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol on October 22, 2021

Oh William!
by Elizabeth Strout

  • Publication Date: October 19, 2021
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Random House
  • ISBN-10: 0812989430
  • ISBN-13: 9780812989434