Charming Oh William!
Review by Ryan Dougherty
Taken at first reading, Oh William! is more like a charming painting than a novel. Here, a kitchen and over there a living room. Of course, there are people, too. And as we delve into the painting, we see that perhaps not everything is as charming as the style suggests.
Oh William! is told from the perspective of Lucy Barton, who proves to be an intuitive, if somewhat aloof, narrator. Lucy’s charming observations and insights are tempered by memories of a past that is anything but charming. She grew up in extreme poverty and abuse, we learn from snippets throughout the novel. She doesn’t like to talk about it, but enough facts bubble to the surface that we do get a good idea of how bad it was.
The writing is so intimate and personal that we quickly identify with Lucy. The book reads like a biography. Indeed, if you type in ‘Is Oh William…’ on google, the next suggested word is ‘autobiographical’. Surely that is evidence of success in crafting a realistic narrative.
Oh William! is the third novel in a series about Lucy, the first being My Name is Lucy Barton and the second a collection of short stories about how other characters perceive Lucy titled Anything is Possible. However, dividing up the series into one of beginnings, middles, and ends feels contrary to the themes and style of Strout’s novels and, in a curious way, I feel sure that Lucy wouldn’t approve of this endeavor. Oh William! is not the type of novel that can be neatly divided or laid carefully onto a plot arc to show how each part performs. It is more than the sum of its parts.
I compared Strout’s novel to a painting because the novel feels closer to a painting thematically. Its story unfolds as we look closer, with the driving plot force being simply an earnest desire to share and confide. Lucy is such a relatable narrator that by listening to her story, we feel the comfort that comes from knowing we are understood. I will not attempt a dissection of the novel, but simply make an earnest attempt to give insight into how this marvelously meticulous novel touches the soul.
First, the language of the novel and the stylistic choices of Strout irresistibly draw the reader into Lucy’s world. Within the aesthetics, we can find considerable philosophical and spiritual depth.
The language Strout uses is casual. Even ordinary. But in its ordinariness, there is an extraordinary intimacy that welcomes the reader to step inside. Strout does this with a style that is strikingly exact. She pinpoints scenes so precisely that we see it right in front of us. Speaking of her marriage to William, Lucy says:
Beneath his height of pleasantness there lurked a juvenile crabbiness, a scowl that flickered across his soul, a pudgy little boy with his lip thrust forward who blamed this person and that person. He blamed me. I felt this often; he was blaming me for something that had nothing to do with our present lives, and he blamed me even as he called me “sweetheart”, making my coffee – back then he never drank coffee but he made me a cup each morning – setting it down before me martyr-like.
Keep the stupid coffee, I wanted to cry out sometimes, I’ll make my own coffee. But I took it from him, touching his hand. “Thanks, sweetheart,” I would say, and we would begin another day.
The language is precisely vivid in its description of William. We can imagine the exact face one makes when a ‘scowl flickers across their soul’. In fact, the whole scene is not only vivid but personal and intimate. It is a glimpse into a life that only someone with intimate knowledge can see. A third person in that room would see nothing but a husband giving his wife a coffee.
The precision with which the writing holistically describes the scene invites us in automatically. We can’t help but to relate to Lucy and see glimpses of characters from our own life in the scene. We feel the resentment of Lucy and we feel the simmering anger of William, and most of all we can taste the pernicious feeling of not having the words to even acknowledge a disaster unfolding beneath our feet.
Within the aesthetics, the content of the novel is a deep expedition into the theme of belonging. There have been many novels dealing with this theme, but Oh William!, like Lucy herself, does it in a unique way. Throughout, Lucy is a perpetual outsider. From her troubled childhood, she never feels like she belongs. She is a world unto herself, being simultaneously self-absorbed and making a courageous effort to be less so, a struggle with which we can’t help but relate. Each of us is, after all, the central character in our own lives, perceiving a world that only seems to exist in relation to our ‘I’. Taken in this context, it is a charming oddity how the feeling that others belong while I do not is strangely universal.
Oh, William! has a consistent theme of belonging but it is not about a character struggling to find a place they belong. Instead, the novel reads more like a reflection on belonging and what it has signified in her life. Belonging can take on many hues. Foremost in mind is an archetypally traditional family, but Lucy’s feeling of unbelonging persisted through the formation and dissolution of her own family with William. This novel points to a deeper source. Lucy doesn’t belong because she is unmoored from the world just a fraction. Or at least she feels that she is, and in a validating way William senses it also. He says to her, “You’re unique, Lucy. You’re a spirit. You know how the other day at that barracks when you thought you were flipping between universes or something, well, I believe you, Lucy, because you are a spirit.”
Lucy expresses the feeling of not belonging by saying that she feels invisible. She writes, “I have always thought if there was a pin for every person who ever lived, there would be no pin for me. I feel invisible, is what I mean.” Indeed, the only times that Lucy feels visible is when she inhabits a role like being a mother. By the time Lucy is narrating this book, her children are already adults with families of their own.
Lucy speculates that her feeling of invisibility comes from her childhood which left her without a common frame of reference for events. She says of herself and David (her second husband, with whom she had a happy marriage), “Neither of us had grown up with a television in the house. We had only a vague knowledge of the Vietnam War, until we taught it to ourselves later on; we had never learned – because we had never heard – the popular songs of the time we grew up in, we had not seen the movies until we were older, we did not know the idioms that were used in common language.” This lack of reference makes Lucy an unmoored character. She was not privy to the shared passage of time in the way most of us are. People navigate the physical world by landmarks and the temporal world by landmark events. Without these landmarks, Lucy is set apart.
The Guardian’s Jonathan Myerson writes in his book review that the narrative structure constantly “skids backwards and forwards through time…”. This narrative structure reflects Lucy’s inner life and feeling of unbelonging. It also relates to her initial attraction to William. In the formative days of their relationship when William functioned as a mentor in her life, he teaches her how to do banal everyday things in life which she never learned during her isolated childhood, and he also teaches her about the shared web of events which make up the mainstream current of time. Lucy says that “it was as though William ushered me into this world. As much as I could be ushered.”
From a spiritual perspective, the part of Lucy that cannot be ushered into the world is the soul. It is a part of us that is in the world but not of the world. It is the part of Lucy that William refers to as her spirit. In a way, Lucy’s marriage to William is an effort to belong, to overcome the part of her that cannot be pinned to a corkboard. Retrospectively, Lucy reflects that “this authority was why I had fallen in love with William. We crave authority. We do. No matter what anyone says, we crave that sense of authority. Of believing that in the presence of this person we are safe.”
William does have authority in the sense that he constantly keeps moving forward. In the room next to William’s dying mother, Lucy notes how “the woman was not dead yet, but William was already writing her obituary, and for some reason – for all these years – I have admired him for that.” Undoubtedly, William pushes forward, carrying or dragging those in his life along with him. However, it is not always where they want to go. He has numerous affairs after marrying and starting a family with Lucy, prompting her to leave him. This pattern repeats itself with William’s second wife, who also leaves him.
Authority does get people moving, but it doesn’t get anyone very far in the direction they want to go. Even William trips in his bullish plunge into the future when he learns more about his mother’s upbringing during a trip to Main with Lucy. He learns how she grew up in in poverty and learns of the baby, his estranged sister, that his mother abandoned. He is shaken and brought to a halt. After Lucy and William return to their home in NYC, he visits Lucy a final time and invites her to go on a vacation to the Cayman Islands with him, a place they frequented during their marriage. Lucy, in a later moment of lucidity, thinks: “As I lay in bed that night, thinking of William and his face in my apartment, of our conversation, all of a sudden I thought: Oh. He has lost his authority.” (233) Lucy cannot pinpoint why exactly she realizes this, though she knows it to be true. The reason for William’s loss of authority is that he has, finally, stopped. He is no longer moving forward but instead seeking to repeat a memory from many years ago when he was married to Lucy. She agrees to go on vacation with him.
Oh William! feels particularly intimate because it portrays a truthful and universal experience of belonging. In this world, there is no heroic journey where we arrive home triumphant, loving and loved. In fact, anyone can see that the world will continue right along without us at all and yet, here we are. There are no easy answers or black and white choices. Elizabeth Strout herself says that “it is not ’good’ or ’bad’ that interests me as a writer, but the murkiness of human experience and the consistent imperfections of our lives.” Oh William! stays true to her interests and perhaps I shouldn’t say it, but I feel sure that Lucy would have a well-worn copy on her bookshelf.
Ryan Dougherty graduated with an undergraduate degree in English literature a number of years ago (he’d rather not say how many). Since then, he spent the better part of a decade teaching in Vietnam. Leaving behind a well-worn sunhat and a promise to return, he came to the Netherlands to start an MA in Literature at Utrecht University. Ryan began studying with grand ambition, but after meeting his classmates has consigned himself to mediocrity.
- Strout, Elizabeth. Oh William!. Penguin Books, 2022.
- Myerson, Jonathan. “Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout Review – Lucy Barton’s Return Brings Intense Pleasures.” The Guardian, 24 Oct. 2021, http://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/oct/24/oh-william-by-elizabeth-strout-review-lucy-bartons-return-brings-intense-pleasures.