Oh William!: A Novel
“Strout, once again, demonstrates that she certainly knows human nature.”
The most stunning aspect of Elizabeth Strout’s beautiful and insightful new novel, Oh William!, is the narrative voice, which violates most of the basic tenets of high school English classes. Here’s a typical example:
“I left William just as the girls were going off the college. I became a writer. I mean I was always a writer, but I began to publish books—I had published one book—but I began to publish more books, this is what I mean.”
In a novice’s hands, the writing would be smoothed out to avoid choppiness, repetition, and contradiction.
In a good writer’s hands, those same traits would simply announce: “The narrator is insecure!”
But because Strout is an amazing novelist, the language does much more. It personifies the (minimal) plot, which is about uncovering family secrets, and the theme. As Lucy Barton, the narrator, emphasizes, “Everybody in this whole wide world, we do not know anybody, not even ourselves!”
With each apparently choppy re-circling of her thoughts, Lucy spirals deeper into understanding herself, the people around her, and life in general.
Plus, the writing is powerful in its understated way.
Oh William! is loosely part of what might be called Strout’s “Lucy Barton trilogy,” although it’s not necessary to have read the other two novels (My Name Is Lucy Barton and Anything Is Possible) to appreciate this one. In fact, Lucy in this volume frequently lays out the basic characters, setting, and plot of the others.
Here, Lucy and her ex-husband, William Gerhardt, are older—64 and 71, respectively— and have mellowed into a warm friendship. But William abruptly drops three surprises on Lucy: His third wife has left him; he’s discovered, through an internet search, that his mother had a daughter two years before he was born whom she abandoned to run off with his father, a German POW during World War II; and he’d like Lucy to join him on a quest to Maine to revisit his roots and possibly meet his half-sister.
That search is important in itself. But it also prompts Lucy to think back on her history and relationships, and it’s those flashbacks—about her marriages to William and her second husband, her brutal childhood, William’s larger-than-life mother, hers and William’s daughters—that actually constitute the bulk of the novel.
The key relationship is the one between Lucy and William. The book toys with the question that their daughter Becka asks, when they set out for Maine: “Are you and Dad getting back together?” Lucy, though eloquent and sharply observant about almost everything else, seems to ignore the implications of their intimate road trip (albeit with chastely separate hotel rooms), to the point where she almost becomes an unreliable narrator.
Strout hits only a few discordant notes. While the choppy style usually works, there’s too much of the overly cute refrain “So there was that.” And some of the descriptions of rural Maine are a touch patronizing.
Lucy may think that “we do not know anybody.” But Strout, once again, demonstrates that she certainly knows human nature.