Every time I read a novel by Elizabeth Strout, I wonder why I have not read her whole backlist. I have learned to expect great things from her, and her novel “Oh William!” is no different.
If you are a fan of her previous work, “My Name is Lucy Barton,” rejoice, for Lucy Barton is the narrator of this exquisite companion novel. It focuses on Lucy’s first husband, William.
As the novel opens, we meet Lucy again and come to learn more about William’s situation. He is aging. He feels that he is at the end of his career and that he has made no significant advances in the field. His wife has just left him. And when a long-buried family secret comes to light, he asks Lucy to come to Maine with him to learn about his past. Lucy, of course, agrees, and as they explore a small town in Maine, Lucy reflects on their life together. We learn about their marriage and the relationship they have with each other in the present day.
“Oh William!” is a quiet, character-driven novel. Strout writes with such an understated elegance, and Lucy’s melancholy voice tugs at your heartstrings during even the most seemingly innocuous moments.
What continues to astound me most about this novel, however, is Strout’s depiction of Lucy’s perspective. While we are in her head, it is difficult to see Lucy’s flaws and her impact on others. There are certain scenes in the novel, however, when Lucy’s flaws come to light, and in these moments, Strout’s character jumps off the page. It feels as though I could find Lucy and talk to her.
“Oh William!” is a story about grief. It is also about legacy. But mostly it is about reckoning with the past and reckoning with the person you have become.
The title of the novel comes across with multiple resonances throughout the text, and Strout’s compassionate voice tells us gently how flawed human beings are. Though there is a lot of sadness in this novel, it never loses hope. And that is Strout’s greatest gift.
Ashley Riggleson is a freelance reviewer from Rappahannock County.