Review: ‘Oh William!’ by Elizabeth Strout, novel by Lucy Barton


On the bookshelf

Ah Guillaume!

By Elizabeth Strout
Random House: 256 pages, $ 27

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I imagine Elisabeth Strout hand-scribbling his novels in a serene room on the Maine coast, a cluster of white pines standing in front of his window. There is a quietness in his prose – even with scowling, picky characters like Olive Kitteridge – that exudes calm devotion. Even in the darkest moments of his novels, there is a sweet, periwinkle feeling.

Where a simple sentence will do, is: “I was so happy. “”Oh he is so solitary! “” What a strange thing is life. “Lucy Barton in particular, the narrator – again – of Strout’s new novel,” Oh William !, “ announces his reactions with the vocabulary of an ordinary person. Its exclamation marks (there are many) are the little spikes of intensity that our emotions go through every day. Strout does not dress the tongue of a tuxedo when a wool sweater will suffice. Other novelists must scold themselves when they see what Strout does without any sticky pyrotechnics. Direct goes down so easily and feels so refreshing.

All this makes it possible to read “Oh William! Like coming home with a sensitivity so intelligently deployed that it might go unnoticed. This is the third in a series of novels (following “My name is Lucy BartonAnd “Anything Is Possible”) revolving around the Illinois-born daughter of emotionally inaccessible parents, raised in an unheated garage but now settled among the fruits of success as a novelist in New York City. (This may be the only novel about a novelist who doesn’t care at all about her writing, editing, or profession.)

But we shouldn’t call it a trilogy. “Anything Is Possible” was not a sequel, but a series of stories building a larger universe for the first novel. “Oh William! ”, In turn, looks more like the next row of stitches in a knitted blanket; new patterns emerge, but the overall effect is that a world is filling up, becoming both bigger and more complex. “Trilogy” involves momentum, but Strout keeps going back to find more, more, more in the nooks and crannies.

This The novel is set a few years after the events recounted in “My Name Is Lucy Barton”. (To add a layer of slight complication, this story took place in the mid-1980s but was told some 20 years later.) Lucy’s second husband, David, has passed away, and she finds herself drawn to the familiarity of her first husband, William – his capable scientific mind, his confidence to travel the world – although he is now married for the third time.

Strout’s simple style negates the soap opera potential of this description. Lucy’s grief rises and falls, but his attention is fixed on Willliam’s struggles: Shortly after his wife, Estelle, unexpectedly leaves their marriage, he finds out that his mother had abandoned a child before he was born. “Wait,” Lucy asks when he calls her to come and see her suddenly half-empty apartment, “She took the rugs? Williams nods. “God. My God.” It’s a level of betrayal that hits Lucy almost as much as William.

Loneliness and longing were Strout’s great themes in “Lucy Barton” and its follow-up. She returns here as a supplicant to her prayer book: begging to understand them even a little more. In this first novel, while the writer is lying on a hospital bed suffering from a vague internal illness, his mother comes to stay there for five days. She tells stories about the people of the town of Amgash, Illinois, who mostly looked down on and belittled the poor and isolated Barton family. (We learn more about their alienation, from their neighbors, and from each other in “Anything is Possible.”) The subtext is everything Lucy and her mother don’t tell each other: about their shivering poverty; the horrible and masturbatory pangs of Lucy’s father; the dark gazes where the warm hugs should have been. Love – a word barely spoken – covers them like a clear glaze, enveloping but almost invisible.

The Lucy from “Oh William!” didn’t evolve beyond his lonely childhood – most of us don’t. On a trip to Maine to help William find his long-lost half-sister, she looks out the window and admires the wide open road, the bush of trees. She feels the veil of a familiar void – and panics. “Oh, I wish I hadn’t come! ” she thinks. “I’m afraid of things that are unfamiliar.” William’s response is “cold to [her] ears ”and it spins further. “Oh, panic! If you haven’t been there, you can’t know.

Their marriage-friendship is marked by ambivalence, mutability. “Sometimes in our marriage, I hated it”, remarks Lucy. “I saw, with a sort of dull terror disk in my chest, that with his pleasant distance, his gentle expressions, he was not available.” But now they often chat, meet at a local restaurant for breakfasts, confide. Lucy calls William first when her second husband passes away: “Oh William, help me.”

There is a built-in tie binding certain relationships, Strout suggests, such as the “invisible threads” Virginia Woolf woven across London to keep her characters connected in “Mrs. Dallas. The best moments of the novel are the sudden blows that Lucy feels when her son with William twangs that sharp blow of dissociation that we feel when we realize that to be human is to be alone.

Strout does very little here again, and that’s a notion to be celebrated. I hate to write that she tells “little” stories, because women’s criticism of fiction is filled with such contemptuous implications: It’s adorable of women to write these delicate little tales about domesticity and unhappiness – tap tap on the head. But smallness is Strout’s strength. His stories don’t have to be grandiose because much of the human experience isn’t; it is experienced at the level of everyday life, conversational, gestural. There is enough wonder in the silence between two people to fill books even longer than these.

Which isn’t to say that Strout doesn’t have a cosmic point of view. His novels are universal, although they are neither big, nor broad, nor captivating, like the overabundance of literary fiction which must announce its own importance via the number of pages or the spread of the characters. Read “Oh William! For his suggestions on how the economy of our childhood never leaves us. (In the first novel, Lucy is blown away by an artist who can afford Bloomingdale shirts; in this novel, she eats lunch there regularly but never forgets what she was before.) Read it for the revelations. Strout’s cautious about the sandblasting of rural America after World War II.

Oh! And read it for the hearty exclamation points. They are the only ones in modern fiction that I can stand.

Kelly’s work has been featured in New York Magazine, Vogue, the New York Times Book Review, and elsewhere.

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