BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout [in Shelf Awareness]

Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout has the remarkable ability to engage audiences immediately with just a few opening sentences. Her marvelous eighth novel, Oh William!, is no different, made even more inviting by being the third in her Amgash series, which began with My Name Is Lucy Barton (2016), followed by Anything Is Possible (2017). Of course, reading all three in chronological order promises gratifying insights – Strout’s fans will delightedly recognize obvious wink-winks linking previous novels (Pam Carlson from The Burgess Boys; the town of Shirley Falls, Maine) – but, as with all of Strout’s work, each title is satisfying on its own.

“I would like to say a few things about my first husband, William,” Lucy Barton begins. He’s 71 now, and “been through some very sad events.” Lucy herself is 63, a lauded novelist still living in New York City, recently widowed following the death of her second husband, David. Here, though, she spotlights William, to whom she was married for almost 20 years; they have two daughters. In the decades since their divorce, they’ve remained remarkably close. Despite Lucy’s devotion to beloved David, William is ever-present: “William is the only person I ever felt safe with. He is the only home I ever had.”

William, too, continues to rely emotionally on Lucy. He’s lately battling night terrors that involve his late mother, Catherine. In life, Catherine was especially close to both William and Lucy; her premature death happened during their marriage, making Lucy the only partner of William’s who Catherine knew. He can’t share that past with his third wife, Estelle, 22 years younger, although she seems perfectly accepting of Lucy’s presence in their lives. But then Estelle abandons William, taking their 10-year-old daughter, leaving William again to turn to Lucy for support. When William finally takes advantage of Estelle’s last Christmas gift – a subscription to an ancestry website that he initially disdained – what he discovers is so shocking that, once more, he must rely on Lucy to make sense of what he’s learned. Lucy’s involvement also enables overdue, rewarding insights of her own.

Strout peppers her writing with folksy phrases – “…I guess is what I mean,” “…is what I’m saying” – imbuing Lucy with a guileless naiveté. But Strout is as sharp as ever – as, no doubt, is Lucy. For all her artless posturing, Lucy’s raw, razor-sharp observations about identity and relationships – the adjustments and adaptations necessary for lasting sustainability – propel Strout’s narrative toward deeply empathic self-awareness. Along the way, Strout reveals yet another superb story. Her vast audiences will (again) be enthralled.

Shelf Talker: Elizabeth Strout’s glorious eighth title is the third in a series starring novelist Lucy Barton who, at 63, remains a remarkably empathic observer of human relationships.

Review: Shelf Awareness Pro, September 20, 2021

Readers: Adult

Published: 2021


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