Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout
Esther Ifesinachi Okonkwo
Elizabeth Strout’s Oh William! is the third book of hers featuring the tender, contemplative Lucy Barton. Here, unlike in its prequel My Name is Lucy Barton, William, Lucy’s first husband, takes center stage. The book begins with the sentence, “I would like to say a few things about my first husband William.” Lucy then goes on to spin a picture of William, providing vibrant details of his features, routines, tendencies, and memories from their past that illuminate their complicated marriage. She describes him as a grumpy septuagenarian, “a tall man” who “dresses very well” with a face “often closed with an unyielding pleasantness, except for once in a very great while when he throws his head back in real laughter.” He takes daily walks. He has frequent night terrors, haunted by the knowledge of his father’s Nazi involvement, and by the memories of his late mother. Details of William that imply acridity are softened by those of him which indicate uncertainty, vulnerability. It comes as a slight surprise when we learn that William, while still teaching microbiology at New York University, felt “great trepidation every time he stood before the class.” A few pages into the novel, and it is clear that the two were married for a long time before getting divorced (in this case, twenty years), and that in those years, Lucy had known William as one would know a sibling.
Lucy’s second husband, a cellist named David Abramson, is dead for a year when the book starts, and Lucy is quietly mourning when William’s life takes a turn worth telling. William discovers that his late mother, Catherine Cole, has a secret daughter in Maine, and he convinces Lucy to join him on his journey to learn about his half-sister. In Maine, in a poorly lit house on Pleasant Street, it is Lucy, and not William, who sits with William’s secret sister, Lois Bubar. Catherine’s image is greatly complicated by Lois’s revelations. We see Catherine anew and this intricate, finely woven plot line creates a strong resonance throughout the book and establishes again Strout’s keen interest in exploring the ills of America’s class system.
In My Name is Lucy Barton, it is established that Lucy is marked deeply by the trials of growing up in poverty. Strout describes Lucy’s impoverished childhood starkly, unflinchingly. In Oh William!, Lucy declares: “I have never fully understood the whole class business in America because I came from the bottom of it, and when that happens it never really leaves you. I mean I have never really gotten over it, my beginnings, the poverty is what I mean.” The same seems to be true for Catherine. In the mirroring of two characters with similar backgrounds, Strout attempts to complicate the scars of poverty. Lucy, now 63 years old, a mother of two adult women, and a successful novelist, many years away from the nightmare of her childhood in Amgash, Illinois, feels invisible still. Catherine sheds her life in Maine and remakes a new one with her second husband and her son. In different ways, both women attempt to disappear.
Lucy is the perfect first-person narrator: she is a writer herself, and a character with an endless capacity for compassion. Every character who comes under her scrutiny is met with grace. One of such moments in the book happens with Estelle, William’s ex-wife, who divorces him as the plot shoots into its climax. Sometime after the divorce, Lucy runs into Estelle at a shop, and in a short moment, in very few sentences, Estelle is given a voice. “It’s a loss to me as well,” Estelle says of the divorce. Between the two, there’s a very human moment of sincerity. “I know exactly what you are saying, Estelle,” Lucy replies. With Lucy, nobody has the door shut in their face.
It is compassion and tenderness that elevates Lucy’s relationship with William. William is philandering, careless, and in Lucy’s words, “a pudgy little boy with his lower lip thrust forward who blamed this person and that person.” Yet, the two share a bond. With a different character, one justifiably blind with rage from William’s cheating and manipulation, William would be rendered one dimensional, all of his clambering to understand himself, the slices of vulnerability with which he is often depicted—“I saw him from afar and I saw that his khakis were too short… A little bit this broke my heart”—would be lost.
Lucy’s tone is contemplative. She starts to narrate an event, hesitates, and decides against telling it. Sometimes, she pauses a story mid-action to tell another. It is, however, never careless. There is the thoroughness of a master filmmaker in Strout’s arrangement of the vignettes that make up the book. The past and present meet in illuminating ways. The structure of the book mimics that of a mind remembering, trying not to remember, sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding. For example, one often forgets that Lucy’s dearly beloved husband has recently passed, and then one is jerked awake when a memory of him is inserted without prompt.
Strout has woven a tale of two people in significant moments of their lives, picking with precision and earnestness deepening and incisive moments to lead readers to the poignant sentences that end the book: “But we are all mythologies, mysterious. We are all mysteries, is what I mean.” One finishes Oh William! with the sense that being alive is a difficult, complex process, and that everyone is trying, grasping. Perhaps this sentiment crumbles soon after, as one drops the book and turns on the television to the news of thousands of people dying, losing their homes and families due to decisions made by powerful people. But in the moment, we are urged on by Lucy to choose compassion for others and for ourselves.
ESTHER IFESINACHI OKONKWO is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her works have appeared in Isele Magazine, Catapult, and Guernica. She is a 2021 recipient of the Elizabeth George Foundation Grant. She is currently a first-year Creative Writing (Fiction) PhD student at Florida State University. Home for her is Lagos, Nigeria.