Elizabeth Strout forces us to see her characters – and our world – anew in this subtle and moving novel built on grief, rejected ideals and unexpected trauma
It’s been five years since we first encountered Lucy Barton, in her hospital bed in New York, in the Booker-longlisted My Name is Lucy Barton. We learned about her poverty-stricken early life, her relationship with her mother, her escape to college, her first flushes as a writer. In Anything is Possible, she made a reappearance, returning to the town of Amgash, Illinois, where she was raised. That was narrated in the third-person and focused more on small-town life than on Lucy herself. So, while Oh William! is technically the third of the Lucy Barton books, it feels a bit like the second. Strout returns to first-person mode, with Lucy as our narrator, in this unsurprisingly moving and luminous novel.
Running through My Name is Lucy Barton was the refrain “Lucy comes from nothing”. It was a shorthand her mother-in-law, Catherine, used when introducing her to people. Of course, as Lucy realises: “No one in this world comes from nothing.” The sentiment is cleverly reprised in Oh William!. Whence does William come, for example? And his mother, Catherine, who spoke those words? These questions set our narrative in motion.
Lucy is a successful writer living in New York. Her second husband, David, has just died and “in my grief for him I have felt grief for William as well”. William is her ex-husband and father to her two daughters. In a sense this is really a story about David but she doesn’t have the wherewithal to tell that story, so she circles around it, telling the story of William instead.
The plot follows William’s journey to uncover truths about his past, after a DNA test pulls up unexpected information. But anyone who has ever read an Elizabeth Strout book knows plot is never (or at least never feels like) the driving force. Everything happens at sentence level. We are presented with little clouds of narrative. Time periods criss-cross. The reader’s attention is constantly occupied by salient details and illuminating character moments.
People do things and say things to one another. Lucy brings tulips to a party. Catherine buys clothes for Lucy. David eats raspberries with his breakfast. But when the details pile up, we realise these characters have been doing something else; talking to themselves, all along.
Strout writes with subtlety and unassuming might. Meeting her characters is like encountering someone in side profile only for them to turn their head and reveal a great gash. People are one thing and then they are another. They carry unexpected traumas. Here, the William and Catherine we thought we knew are reconfigured. Oh, we think. Oh!
This is also a story told through Lucy, and therefore about Lucy. She can’t shake the sense that she is invisible. “I have always thought that if there was a big corkboard and on that board was a pin for every person who ever lived, there would be no pin for me,” she says. To the reader, this is absurd, because it is she who has the authority over the story. But her journey, for want of a less cheesy word, is towards establishing herself in relation to other people. “When I think Oh William!, don’t I mean Oh Lucy too? Don’t I mean Oh Everyone, Oh dear Everybody in this whole wide world,” she muses.
Likewise, William feels like reality is getting away from him: “It had to do with a sense of leaving. He could feel himself almost leaving the world and he did not believe in any afterlife”.
But when he thinks of Lucy, it brings him back into himself. “He would think about the fact that I was out there alive, right now — I was alive — and this gave him comfort.”
There is a degree of irony here. Achieving human connection has a narcissistic end. They see the other and are really seeing the self. There is no resolve to this irony, but there does seem to be hope that, if only a “teeny tiny bit”, humans are capable of knowing one another, and that relationships, even broken ones, have meaning.
In a more general sense, Lucy Barton’s trajectory is a peculiar one. On paper, it looks like an up-by-the-bootstraps narrative. She came from nothing, and became a successful writer. She even points out that “ours is a very American story”, and William tells her it is “the American dream”. But she later admits “I would give it all up, all the success I have had as a writer […] for a family that was together and children who knew they were dearly loved.”
The rejection of one American ideal for another, in other words. But she does not get the other. She and William are divorced. He is on his third wife, a woman 22 years younger. Which is an altogether different kind of American story.
The book seems to be as much about what William calls “the American dreams that weren’t lived” as the ones that were.
“You were so lucky about Vietnam, William. To get such a good draft number. Think how different your life might have been,” Lucy says.
“I’ve thought about that my entire life,” he replies.
That would knock the wind out of you. It’s what Strout does best: shows us one side of a coin then forces us to see the other; to see the world anew.
Fiction: Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout
Viking, 256 pages, hardcover, €21; e-book £9.99