By Elizabeth Strout (2021)
Review by Tina Cohen
People like Lucy Barton can drive me crazy. In Elizabeth Strout’s first novel about her, My Name is Lucy Barton, I had a very different reaction— I liked and was cheering for her through her struggles.
Lucy returns in Strout’s newest novel, Oh William!, and though you’d think it was about William, Lucy’s first husband, and to some degree it is, most of the time we’re observing Lucy, full of insecurity, hesitancy, uncertainty.
I know, all of us have degrees of these weaknesses. But Strout has us watching someone whose vulnerabilities pull hard and makes us share Lucy’s discomfort.
I found myself finally absorbed with Lucy’s inner world and appreciating her unsteadiness.
Why read a book like that? I struggled with that question much of the time, but to Strout’s credit (and this is a lot of what I love about Strout), I remained engaged with the book.
I found myself finally absorbed with Lucy’s inner world and appreciating her unsteadiness. I understood more of what she was grappling with and came to see her efforts as heroic and brave. In other words, I felt compassion for her, and it struck me later as similar to what Strout put me through with Olive Kitteridge over the two books she wrote about her.
Another thing I like about Strout’s fiction is its connection to Maine. Strout sets this story primarily in Manhattan, but one of the more eventful interactions is a visit William asks Lucy to accompany him on to Aroostook County, for his family research.
They fly into Bangor International Airport, experienced by Lucy as “eerie.” The long, dark corridors inside were empty. But, William interjected, it could bustle with activity, a first or last stop for American troops in transport to or from overseas duty. He knew a surprising number of facts about the place.
Local residents would turn out to welcome them, calling themselves “Maine Troop Greeters.” They’d even made a museum there.
The visit’s first night is spent at the airport’s onsite hotel, which also feels cold and unfriendly to Lucy. Strout, I think, is suggesting what an experience of Maine could be to some outsiders, using the airport as metaphor: a vast space, relatively unpopulated and unused, which seems bleak and unwelcoming.
But the Greeters are evidence that a generosity of spirit is clearly part of the place. Strout would know; she is a Maine native and has a residence in the Brunswick area.
In discussing their trip, Lucy notes she’d been to Maine only once before, when—as a successful, popular author—she was asked to speak at a college in Shirley Falls (a fictional town Strout features in earlier work). No one had shown up for her reading; Lucy concluded it had gone unadvertised, that no students were encouraged to attend.
William wonders aloud if the sponsoring department chair may have undermined it, jealous of her, and asks with concern if she was paid. Lucy dismisses the notion anyone could envy her, and thinks she was paid but forgotten how much.
“You know, something small, I’m sure,” she muses. William’s response, as I read it, seems frustrated, indignant on her behalf, impatient with her lack of self-worth: “Jesus, Lucy.”
And that could just as easily have been the title for this book, instead of Oh William! Both exclamations are a seeming reaction to what could be said but instead, seems easier to be ignored or denied. Wouldn’t it be as frustrating to them as me?
But hats off to Strout, because it isn’t defeat that dominates in the end. She is masterful at letting insight creep up on both her characters and the reader.
Tulips, which we’re told are Lucy’s favorite flower and are pictured on the book’s cover, don’t seem to mean much overall. But tulips can represent rebirth, blooming in spring after surviving underground the unfavorable growing conditions of winter.
I think we’re being shown that Lucy, too, blooms. The abuse in her childhood, made clear in the earlier books, shaped her and left long-lasting effects.
But Strout illustrates ways she has coped, changed, grown. She optimistically reminds us that a “winter” of deprivation—the lack of nurturing conditions—can be weathered, and life can return, springing forth with fresh vigor, beauty, and delight.
Tina Cohen is a therapist who is a seasonal resident of Vinalhaven.