November: “Oh William!” by Elizabeth Strout
Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout
Our November 2021 Book of the Month
Oh, Elizabeth you have pierced my heart again.
I have loved Elizabeth Strout’s work since I first introduced my clients to her debut novel Amy & Isabelle in 1998. In the years since, she has brought to life the prickly but lovable character of Olive Kitteridge, in her Pulitzer Prize winning eponymous novel and its follow up, Olive, Again. She also made us fall in love with Lucy Barton in a book we awarded The Medici Book Club Prize, My Name is Lucy Barton. In her latest work, our November Book of the Month, Oh William!, we revisit Lucy through the prism of her marriages and her relationships with her adult daughters.
The beauty of Strout’s work is that she never writes a mere sequel, simply moving forward in time with a character. What I savored in Oh William! is that she offers a reframing of the pivotal moments, life shaping narratives and defining traumas of Lucy’s life. Like the science books in elementary school, that had transparent layers of the circulatory, skeletal, and muscular systems, Strout’s novel adds a new layer without obscuring the layers beneath.
Through motifs that repeat throughout the novel and references to what Lucy has already written about, Oh William! mines the depths of a complex life that has surpassed all of Lucy’s childhood dreams but is still informed by her family of origin. In talking about how the dissociation caused by her painful past damaged her marriage to her ex-husband, Lucy said, “And we lived our lives on top of this.”
All relationships are built on the foundations of our formative experiences. The universal truth of this beautiful meditation on marriage is that we all must build our relationships on a foundation that has already been poured and dried. With a subtle hand Strout guides us through the fragility of our individual and marital identities. Lucy’s two marriages may have ended in a divorce and in death, but her memories and her life are still inextricably tied to the men she shared a house or a home with. Book Clubs will love going on this road trip along with Lucy Barton all the more if they have read the previous novels, but it is not necessary to enjoy and discuss the themes in our November Book of the Month, Oh William!.
ABOUT THE BOOK
I would like to say a few things about my first husband, William.
Lucy Barton is a writer, but her ex-husband, William, remains a hard man to read. William, she confesses, has always been a mystery to me. Another mystery is why the two have remained connected after all these years. They just are.
So Lucy is both surprised and not surprised when William asks her to join him on a trip to investigate a recently uncovered family secret — one of those secrets that rearrange everything we think we know about the people closest to us. What happens next is nothing less than another example of what Hilary Mantel has called Elizabeth Strout’s “perfect attunement to the human condition.” There are fears and insecurities, simple joys and acts of tenderness, and revelations about affairs and other spouses, parents and their children. On every page of this exquisite novel we learn more about the quiet forces that hold us together — even after we’ve grown apart.
At the heart of this story is the indomitable voice of Lucy Barton, who offers a profound, lasting reflection on the very nature of existence. “This is the way of life,” Lucy says: “the many things we do not know until it is too late.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Elizabeth Strout is the author of the New York Times bestseller Olive Kitteridge, for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize; the national bestseller Abide with Me; and Amy and Isabelle, winner of the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award and the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize. She has also been a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize in London. She lives in Maine and New York City.
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