Oh, William! is the fourth novel I’ve read now by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Elizabeth Strout and she does not disappoint. This book is slightly more complicated than the others in that it’s a psychological study of Lucy Barton (the main character from her earlier book, My Name is Lucy Barton, and her relationship with her first husband.
William Gerhardt was her first husband and father of their two now-adult daughters. She later married David, another misfit like Lucy and the husband who ultimately was the love of her life, but this book is about the less agreeable of her two husbands, William. Because of their two daughters, Lucy and William have remained part of each other’s lives throughout their various marriages and affairs.
This book is a stream-of-consciousness type of narrative. Lucy reflects, meanders, and analyses her twenty years married to William and their close relationship with his mother, Catherine. The author tells the story as if she’s talking to a friend over a cup of tea, trying to figure out why she married William and why he is the way he is. She recounts their experiences during their time together while continually qualifying her recollections and impressions with rhetorical statements like, “is what I’m saying here,” or “this is what I mean”.
When William’s third wife gives him a gift of entry into an online ancestry website where he can learn more about his family history, he reluctantly follows up. When he discovers at the age of seventy that his mother, Catherine, had another child, a daughter, about two years before he was born, with her former husband, he is shocked.
Catherine married her first husband, a Maine potato farmer, at the age of eighteen to escape her family. World War II was happening and her new husband utilized German POWs from a nearby camp to help work in his fields. Catherine fell in love with one of the prisoners and left her husband and year-old baby to begin a new life with her lover when he returned to Maine after the war ended. Wilhelm, her new German husband was the father of William, Lucy’s first husband.
William appeared to be the perfect husband. He was educated, attractive, respectable and offered Lucy a far better life than she had known growing up. Lucy seems to be suffering from classic Imposter Syndrome and even though she becomes a successful writer, she never feels like she fits or belongs in her new lifestyle and marriage. William’s constant affairs and self-centredness provide her with the incentive she needs to finally leave the marriage.
Strout writes for and about our age group, baby boomers, who are now in their sixties and seventies. Those of us who have been married more than once will relate to Lucy’s examination of both her marriages. I know I found myself reflecting extensively on both of my marriages as I read Lucy’s story.
I loved Strout’s earlier books and I can recommend Oh, William! too if you’re in the mood for contemplation. You’ll want to keep reading to see what she concludes at the end, and then you’ll have more material for contemplation. Enjoy!