“Oh William” is Elizabeth Strout’s third Lucy Barton novel. The novel focuses on family, the importance of formative years and the lifelong process of filling in the holes of knowledge about ourselves and others.
Lucy is now 62 years old, divorced, widowed and the mother of two adult daughters. Lucy has a close friendly relationship with her ex-husband William, who is 69 years old at the start of the novel and who has a much younger wife, Estelle, and a six year old daughter, Bridget. Lucy is a famous novelist and William is a semi-retired parasitologist. Lucy’s second husband David Abramson, came from a Hasidic Jewish background and was a cellist with the philharmonic. David died prior to the start of the story. “But there is this: Both with the discovery of David’s illness and then again with his death, it was William I called first.”
Throughout the novel Lucy is contemplating her difficult childhood and her relationship with William and William’s sophisticated mother, Catherine, as well as the lives of her daughters. William calls Lucy and they meet for coffee periodically. She knows that his father had fought with the Nazis and he later tells her that his father had been a member of the Hitler youth. She recalls their visit together to Dachau.
At Christmas time Estelle gives William a subscription to Ancestry. He is very disappointed with the gift and calls Lucy to complain. “This was the William who was tiresome to me, the petulant boy beneath his distinguished and pleasant demeanor…And when I hung up I thought: Thank G-d. And I meant about him being no longer mine.”
Despite Lucy’s humble background, William’s mother, Catherine had been very welcoming. “She was vibrant. Her face was often filled with light…I thought her house was remarkable…” But Catherine had a secret, and William and Lucy would discover that secret together.
Estelle leaves William and through her Ancestry gift, William learns that he has a half-sister. He asks Lucy to travel with him to Bangor Maine to learn more about his past and his half-sister. In Bangor, they learn a great deal about Catherine’s upbringing and history, which answers a lot of questions that they did not even know they had. “And then William begins to close down.”
Throughout the novel Lucy claims that she feels invisible. While giving a reading at a library to a lot of people, she thinks “…as I stood before all those people and read and answered questions, I still felt oddly—but very truly—invisible.”
The novel seems to be about the lifelong journey of getting to know yourself and getting to know someone else. The story is told in a unique style, moving back and forth through moments in time. This is a very enjoyable and thoughtful novel. Give it a try. You can reserve the novel at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.