Invisible woman: Elizabeth Strout, Oh William!

Elizabeth Strout, Oh William! (Viking, 2021)

Not the most inspiring of titles. Its novelist narrator, who we met in My Name is Lucy Barton (links below to other posts on ES novels), tells us more about the events in that earlier novel. For example, that her hospital stay in New York was for a real – and serious – condition, and her estranged, damaged mother really did visit her. She might also have loved her equally damaged daughter, Lucy. Just couldn’t say or show it. Or act upon it.

Elizabeth Strout Oh William! cover There’s more of that kind of thing in Oh William! Here the slender plot has to do with Lucy’s ex-husband, the hapless William, who was (still is) a serial adulterer. Most of his actions cause Lucy to utter the exclamation in the (silly) title. Usually out of exasperation, sometimes pity (maybe even love).

She exclaims in similar ways about others, including herself. Life exasperates her. The cruel, deprived upbringing she told about in Lucy Barton is alluded to in order to account for her present diffidence, her sense of not belonging in the world, and lack of self worth – even as she nears William’s age, 70. She says several times she feels ‘invisible’. ‘What a strange thing life is.’

Strout is able to pull off these banal expressions as Lucy’s only available means of articulating her profound, turbulent emotions. The narrative is told from her viewpoint, and it’s colloquial and idiomatic like that all the time (she’s very fond – overfond – of ‘is what I mean’ after an attempt to explain something). But that’s not to say it lacks complexity or depth. She’s more George Herbert (without the spirituality) than John Donne.

After her various scrapes with William as he tries to find out the truth of his own troubled past in rural Maine, she feels close to him, even sad they divorced, but validated that they did. More to the point, she learns a bit more about herself and her dislocated sensibility. On almost the final page she repeats ‘Oh William!’, then goes on:

don’t I mean Oh Lucy! Too? Don’t I mean Oh Everyone, Oh dear Everybody in this whole wide world, we do not know anybody, not even ourselves!

Except a little tiny, tiny bit we do.

But we are all mythologies, mysterious. We are all mysteries, is what I mean.

This may be the only thing in the world I know to be true.

Other posts here at T Days on ES novels:

My Name is Lucy Barton HERE

 Amy & Isabelle HERE

Olive Kitteridge HERE


10 thoughts on “Invisible woman: Elizabeth Strout, Oh William!

    • Each new novel of hers seems less good than the one before. I found this one the weakest so far. The characters were all so self absorbed, living in a bubble. Some glimmers of what ES can do, but much of it was banal. I probably overstated the good parts.

  1. Hi Simon — I’ve been away and am catching up on my blog reading, so I’m commenting a bit late on your post. I’m afraid I’m in the minority opinion on this one, as I very much enjoyed Oh, William. Although I agree with much of your criticism (I was less than enthused about the title and also found that Lucy’s verbal ticks became a little tiring towards the end) I thought the novel worked extremely well on a variety of levels. One very strong thread IMO was its brilliant depiction of the American class system, which accounted for much of Lucy’s abusive childhood, personal damage and relationship problems and which also pervaded the story. Lucy, as well as William’s mother, were migrants from the very lowest economic/social strata to the safety & prosperity of the upper middle class, but Strout showed that no one makes that journey without incurring substantial damage. I don’t think U.S. writers like to talk about social class very much (in my limited experience, I’ve encountered this type of thing far more in novels from the U.K.); I found it fascinating and I thought Strout’s depiction was skillful and very perceptive.
    I also thought Oh, William functioned quite well as a quirky and entertaining “road trip” novel, as well as a rather tender portrayal of a lengthy and complicated marital relationship (yes, I know — Lucy & William were “officially” divorced but those ties were still binding, weren’t they?).
    And, of course, there is Strout’s depiction of the parental relationship from a variety of angles, which enriched the entire picture: Lucy’s and William’s separate & very different relationships with their children; William’s relationship to his mother and his mother’s relationship to the daughter she abandoned, which in turn recalled Lucy’s estrangement from her own mother.
    Although I don’t think Oh, William is at the level of some of the other Strout novels I’ve read (Lucy Barton & the first Olive book) I thought it was a very respectable outing and definitely work reading, particularly if you’re a Strout fan.
    In short, one book and some very differing opinions but wouldn’t it be dull if it were otherwise? After all, these little differences are what the blogging experience is all about!

    • Thanks for this insight into the American class aspect of the novel, and your defence of the novel generally. I agree that the depiction of Lucy and William’s relationship is subtly done, and that of their respective family relations. Despite ES’s evident skills as a writer, I just found it all a bit inconsequential. As you say, it’s good to talk through our differing responses.

  2. Hmmm, interesting – now that I’ve discovered Elizabeth Strout I do fee like reading more, but I wonder about continuing Lucy’s story, it feels a bit commercial when I felt a kinship with her culturally starved childhood. I’ll have to give it a try. . .

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