Oh William, indeed. Let’s add Oh Elizabeth Strout, Oh Lucy Barton, Oh lucky reader! Is it too much to ask that Lucy’s voice continue to enchant us through many more books? Most readers, this reader certainly, can’t get enough of her. And how many authors would have the grammatical chutzpah to disdain the expected comma so that the phrase, Oh William — a refrain throughout — slides onto the page in one exhaled breath, both exasperated and tender.
Strout’s newest novel is the third in the Amgash series; the first starts with Lucy’s abusive, impoverished childhood in Amgash, Ill.; the second continues though her middle years, married, a mother, reunited with her own long-estranged mother; in “Oh William!” yet another stunning achievement, Lucy is now 63, a New Yorker, a widowed novelist who tries to make sense of her family, her two marriages, her past and present life.
In spare, no-nonsense, conversational language, Lucy addresses the reader as an intimate confidante. She wants to tell us about her first husband, William, now 71, whose sense of authority once made her feel safe. Though she’s grieving the death of her second husband, she also grieves for William — a feeling so isolating it’s “like sliding down the outside of a really long glass building while nobody sees you.” Married for almost 20 years, she and William have two daughters and still remain friends. Despite her Dickensian childhood, she has come into herself, content with her life, her career, her children. On the other hand, William, afforded every advantage, seems stuck. Though he has a third wife, 22 years younger, a 10-year-old daughter, a prestigious job, walks 10,000 steps a day, and feels “(almost) invulnerable,” at night, he often [has] terrors.” Over coffee, he confesses these terrors to Lucy, certain they’re connected to his mother, whom he had adored, and his German father who, to his son’s shame, had fought on the side of the Nazis and belonged to the Hitler Youth. Added to this is the fear of death. When Lucy suggests that he should see someone, he closes down — an ongoing problem, along with William’s many infidelities, that led to their divorce. “William has always been a mystery to me,” Lucy admits. The universal question of who ever grasps the experience of someone else threads through these pages. Trying to explore this riddle, Lucy recalls scattershot scenes from a marriage: sometimes loathing William, hating his emotional unavailability, at other times feeling so happy, so “snug with him.”
Another leitmotif (reprised in all of Strout’s books) is class. “I have never fully understood the whole class business in America,” Lucy confesses. “I mean I have never really gotten over it, the poverty.” “This is Lucy. Lucy comes from nothing,” is how her mother-in-law, Catherine, introduces her. Lucy describes trips she took with Catherine, how invisible she felt, how bewildered she was; she didn’t know how to use a hotel key or what to wear to the pool. Though she loved her mother-in-law, Lucy found Catherine’s elegance, her tasteful house, her fashionable clothes, intimidating.
When William invites Lucy on a trip to Maine to uncover his mother’s origins and family relationships he’s glimpsed from an ancestry website, Lucy accepts immediately. She wants to learn more about William and Catherine. Stopping at the Bangor airport hotel en route, Lucy knocks on the door to William’s room and spies him slumped and looking old. She asks him how his night terrors are. “They’re gone … my life got worse, so they stopped,” he says. As they drive north, Lucy contemplates her failed marriage and how fast “intimacy became a ghastly thing.”
Stuck together for miles in the car, William discusses his work anxieties, his many infidelities, Lucy’s hunger and incessant need to eat. At their destination, surprises erupt for both of them — all intensifying the enigma of Lucy’s marriage. “What is it that William knew about me and that I knew about him that caused us to get married?” she wonders. The moment they drive by the place where William’s mother grew up, William exclaims, ”this is a horror movie.” “You chose a woman like your mother,” Lucy points out. Nevertheless, Lucy is grateful to William. Granted the inevitable “surprises and disappointments” of a life together, “it is as though William ushered me into the world.” Perhaps her first marriage made possible her good second one.
That Lucy is capable of love, empathy, insight and growth no matter her beginnings testifies to Strout’s skillful dissection of a complicated and endearing character. More power to her — all her characters are complicated, neither good nor bad but beautifully explored and so real in their humanness. As the author loops from past and present, from person to person, expanding our insight into her creations, stringing out bits of their history, the reader starts to understand both why they act as they do and the power of the reverberations of childhood on us all — its secrets and lies. Strout’s simple declarative sentences contain continents. Who is better at conveying loneliness, the inability to communicate, to say the deep important things? Who better to illustrate the legacies of imperfect upbringings, of inadequate parents? When William explains that what attracted him to Lucy was her sense of joy, the reader can only agree. This brilliant, compelling, tender novel is — quite simply — a joy.
By Elizabeth Strout
Random House, 256 pp., $27
Mameve Medwed is the author, most recently, of “Minus Me.”