"Oh William" | Reviewed by Pat Sainz
Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout has written a third book about fictional Lucy Barton, now a successful writer and a twice-married mother of two. In the first novel, “My Name is Lucy Barton” (2016), Lucy is in the hospital for months after a simple surgery goes wrong. Her estranged mother visits her for five days, never leaving Lucy’s side.
Lucy was raised in an abusive, impoverished home and neglected by her mother. The rifts between Lucy and her mother are slightly mended during her awkward visitation. In Strout’s second book featuring Barton, (“Anything Is Possible”) (2017), Strout writes about Lucy’s hometown characters in short stories, and more about Lucy’s pitiful upbringing is revealed.
“Oh William,” Strout’s newest puts Lucy in her early 60s following her divorce from William and the death of her second husband. William and Lucy have remained in contact because of their two grown daughters. William reaches out to Lucy for comfort after his much younger wife, his second, and their young daughter leave him.
Lucy agrees to accompany sad, distraught William on a journey to Maine to find the answer to a family mystery he has just discovered, years after his mother’s death. During her journey with William, Lucy begins to unravel the mystery of her own relationship with her first husband.
Lucy’s life choices have been made based on her deprived childhood; William’s choices have been formed by a mother who loved him but who was unhappy. Marrying William provided a safe haven for Lucy, and young Lucy brought joy to William’s life, but neither comforts were sustainable, their expectations built on misperceptions.
Strout’s characters are loving, kind and flawed, as humans tend to be. Lucy recognizes how lack of communication and a nonexistent self-awareness wrecked her first marriage. She reflects that “We are all mysteries,'' and “We do not really know anybody, not even ourselves.”
Characters in all of Strout’s novels usually come to similar conclusions about humanity, and like humankind, they recognize too late the appreciation they might have had for the gifts of love and the little kindnesses they have received in their lives.
Redemption in Strout’s books comes from her pivotal characters going forward in their relationships armed with knowledge that likely would have saved their younger selves from years of disruption.
Strout fans will welcome “Oh William.” It explores personal relationships through themes of love and redemption. As usual, Strout writes of unforgettable characters and provides readers with a memorable reading experience.
About the Author: Elizabeth Strout won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel “Olive Kitteridge.” “My Name Is Lucy Barton” was a Broadway Play in 2020 starring actress Laura Linney.