Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout: ‘We are all mysteries, is what I mean’

Cover image for Oh William! by Elaizabeth Strout My sense of time has been off during the pandemic: sometimes an event seems as if it was just the other day, others years ago, both assumptions often prove to be wrong. Perhaps that’s why I was surprised to spot a new Elizabeth Strout in the publishing schedules, convinced that Olive, Again was only published last year. Just as her last novel revisited a much-loved character so Oh William! renews our acquaintance with the eponymous narrator of My Name is Lucy Barton who has unexpectedly bumped into her first husband.

I am only saying: I wondered who William was. I have wondered this before. Many times I have wondered this

Lucy’s beloved second husband died a year ago. William has his own problems and is about to accumulate more: he’s no longer teaching and his wife has left him, taking their ten-year-old daughter with her. Before she went, Estelle gave William a subscription to a genealogy website and now he’s been faced with a bombshell. All this, together with the night terrors he’s been suffering have deeply unsettled him. He asks Lucy to accompany him to Maine where he wants to meet the family he had no idea he had and research his father, the German prisoner of war about whose connection with the Second World War he had fretted since visiting Germany with Lucy when they were married. Lucy is left pondering her own childhood, impoverished in every way, her relationship with William’s mother and, ultimately, her marriage to this man with whom she had always felt safe.

People are lonely, is my point here. Many people can’t say to those they know well what it is they feel they might want to say  

Lucy addresses us directly lending Strout’s novel an intimacy which suits her musings on the long and complex relationship with this man to whom she was married, and with his mother whom Lucy had loved, understanding that each recognised something in the other which Catherine may have not wanted to admit while Lucy had done so unconsciously. Strout neatly slips in details from Lucy’s past, helpful for those who have yet to read My Name is Lucy Barton or, like me, have a sketchy memory, reminding us of Lucy’s successful writing career, her aching loneliness and her desolate childhood. As ever, her writing is subtle, her characters complex and her themes are deeply human. Thoughtful, careful and perceptive, Strout leaves much for her readers to infer, capable of evoking aching loneliness but raising a wry smile, too. Even the title, reiterated often throughout the novel, is layered in its subtlety conveying pity, sorrow, recognition, exasperation and love depending on the circumstances. Another Strout triumph, although it has to be said that while I love Lucy but my heart belongs to Olive.

Viking: London 9780241508176 272 pages Hardback

20 thoughts on “Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout: ‘We are all mysteries, is what I mean’”

  1. It sounds suitably thoughtful and nuanced, just the kind of writing we have come to expect from Elizabeth Strout. A timely reminder that I must read Lucy Barton at some point…

  2. This sounds excellent. I haven’t read enough Elizabeth Strout yet, but have three tbr (not this one yet). Lucy Barton was my first by her, so I am very interested in reading this one. This is high on my wish list.

  3. I loved Lucy Barton and enjoyed Anything is Possible, and will certainly get around to reading this. I just love the way Strout handles her characters and pulls you right in, though I prefer it when she stays with the story than when it jumps around between characters as in the second volume.

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