Monday, November 01, 2021

Oh William by Elizabeth Strout

Believe me, I am giving nothing away by beginning my remarks by quoting the last page of Elizabeth’s Strout’s new novel, Oh William

And then I thought, Oh William!

But when I think Oh William!, 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.

Strout in her unique way, again reminds us that there are no ordinary people, that everyone is extraordinary, and that the simplest of day to day events is filled with mystery.

As she does in each of her novels, Strout revisits old characters. This time it is Lucy Barton who reappears. Like Strout, Lucy Barton is an author. Her most recent husband, David has died leaving her buried in grief. And she decides to tell us a few things about her first husband William with whom she has remained good friends after their divorce. They have two adult daughters together, and the two daughters have a half-sister from William’s last marriage. William has been married three times: Lucy, Joanne, and Estelle.

William has been having terrifying dreams and he finds it quite natural to confide in Lucy regarding those dreams. He wonders if the dreams have simply to do with getting older. 

“Maybe,” I said. But I was not sure this was the reason. William has always been a mystery to me—and to our girls as well. I said, tentatively, “Do you want to see anyone to talk to about them?”

Strout’s writing is so simplistic, so flat, and yet her readers understand they are being given a very wise view of the world.  At times her writing seems almost like the awkward journal jottings of a high-schooler. And yet, and yet there seem to be profound insights  about marriage, about raising children, about respecting old relationships and getting beyond petty jealousy.

Both William and Lucy have had sad, lonely childhoods and few warm feelings about their mothers. 

There is this about my own mother:

I have written about her and I really do not care to write anything else about her. But I understand one might need to know a few things for this story. The few things would be this: I have no memory of my mother ever touching any of her children except in violence. I do not remember that she ever said, I love you, Lucy. 

The rather complicated and often humorous plot of this novel is, I think, much less important than Lucy’s asides; asides about choice and loneliness and not being able to let go of past hurts.

People are lonely, is my point here. Many people can’t say to those they know well what it is they feel they might want to say.

The only other writer I can think of who is as skillful in uncovering the extraordinary in ordinary lives is Alice Munro, and like Munro who writes almost exclusively short stories, Strout makes her points in passing, in throw-off comments. Her insights cannot be easily summed up, her messages not easily articulated.

I will leave you with this heart-rending quote from Lucy.

There have been times—and I mean recently—when I feel the curtain of my childhood descend around me once again. A terrible enclosure, a quiet horror: This is the feeling and it was with me my entire childhood, and it came back to me with a whoosh the other day. To remember so quietly, yet vividly, to have it re-presented to me in this way, the sense of doom I grew up with, knowing I could never leave that house (except to go to school, which meant the world to me, even though I had no friends there, but I was out of the house)—to have this come back to me presented a domain of dull and terrifying dreariness to me.: There was no escape.

When I was young there was no escape, is what I am saying. 

Oh Elizabeth, you genius story-teller, please keep writing.

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