Sunday, October 3, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout

 I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence this review.

I love Elizabeth Strout’s writing. Happily, her newest book, Oh William!, is out this month. It continues Lucy Barton’s story, but the books stand alone. You don’t have to have read My Name is Lucy Barton to appreciate Oh William!, but that earlier novel is so lovely it’s well worth reading.

The novel is written in first person POV in a conversational tone. Lucy’s second husband has just died and she is grieving deeply, but that’s not what she wants to talk about. She wants to tell us what is happening with her first husband, William. He’s turning seventy and, despite good health and an ability to continue working as a professor, he’s starting to feel his age and is going through some difficulties.

First, he has begun waking at night with vague terrors, the most common of which is that his deceased mother has come to tell him something.

Second, his wife (his third) leaves him abruptly. He never saw it coming.

And third, while tracing his roots on a genealogy website, he discovers that he has a half-sister. His mother had a daughter before leaving her husband to marry William’s father. She abandoned both her husband and her daughter! William first denies the possibility of this. Then he agonizes over whether or not to try to contact the sister.

Lucy and her ex-husband have a complicated relationship. Despite the pain of their breakup–Lucy left him, in part, because of his rampant infidelity–they have remained close. They are both now also on good terms with their two daughters, though there were certainly rough times in the past. Lucy and William still rely upon one another for support from time to time. They’re older and wiser; however, their personalities have not fundamentally changed. They still know how to push one another’s buttons. And they do. Despite a successful career and a wonderful therapist, Lucy continues to carry the pain of a childhood damaged by poverty, isolation, and abuse. William is aware of her insecurities and is frustrated by them, yet will occasionally stoop to throwing them in her face. They can be wonderfully supportive of one another at some moments, and cruel to one another at others. It is a superbly realistic representation of how relationships can work.

The novel demonstrates the poignancy of aging, the complexities of familial ties, and the fact that no matter how well we know someone we can’t really know them completely. Lucy Barton’s voice draws you in. Elizabeth Strout’s books are highly recommended.

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