Elizabeth Strout Gets Meta in Her New Novel About Marriage


By Elizabeth Strout:

Elizabeth Strout’s mastery of subterranean power is evident in the sleight of hand she uses to inject it into seemingly transparent prose. Strout uses everyday language and straightforward diction to conjure repetitions, gaps, and awkwardness, while at the same time unleashing a tidal urgency that seems to come out of nowhere even as it operates in plain sight. This is how he works. In her new novel, “Oh William!” she distils the facts and feelings into this summation:

If you’re a fan of the author, you’ll recognise the speaker as Lucy Barton, the narrator of “My Name Is Lucy Barton” from 2016 and a character in “Anything Is Possible” from 2017.

Lucy Barton is now a widow after the death of her second husband, and both of her adult daughters are now married. Lucy has since gone on to become a well-known author of several books, some of which appear to be based on her own experiences.

There are numerous references to “Lucy Barton” in “Oh William!” to show that it is a direct sequel. Also like Lucy Barton, “Oh William!” is a brief, swirling account of present-day events that rouse memories of past events that prompt a reckoning. Its structure and tone are also similar.

Her first husband, William Gerhardt, a scientist and professor who is now 71 and the father of her two daughters, is referred to as William. The plot of the novel is set in motion by a series of calamities that befall William: After his third wife abruptly leaves him and takes their teenage daughter, his career begins to wane.

An ancestry website reveals that William’s long-deceased mother, Catherine, to whom Lucy was extremely close, abandoned a young daughter to marry William’s father, a German prisoner of war, in the decade following World War II. This strongly suggests that William’s father, William, was a German prisoner of war.

It was Lucy’s grief and loneliness that made her accept William’s plea for help and accompany him on his trip to Maine in search of his recently discovered half-sister, as well as to visit several sites from his mother’s early years. Lucy and William’s Maine itinerary grazes the fictional location of “Olive Kittredge,” “Olive Again,” “Amy and Isabelle,” and “The Burgess Boys,” the latter of which is mentioned by name.

Strout devotees may experience a frisson. “Oh William!” doesn’t take these connections too seriously, but they give the book a tingle of the uncanny.