Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Book Review: Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout

Pages: 256
Genre: Adult Fiction/Audio Book
Pub. Date: October 19, 2021
Publisher: Random House
Source: Publisher for review
My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Goodreads says, "Through her careful words and reverberating silences (The New York Times), Elizabeth Strout has long captured readers' hearts with her spare, exquisite insights on family, relationships, and loss. And never has her perfect attunement to the human condition (Hilary Mantel) been so evident as in these pages, as Strout's iconic heroine Lucy Barton, of My Name Is Lucy Barton, recounts her complex, tender relationship with William, her first husband--and longtime, on-again-off-again friend and confidant. Recalling their college years, through the birth of their daughters, the painful dissolution of their marriage, and the lives they built with other people, Strout weaves a portrait, stunning in its subtlety, of a decades-long partnership. A masterful exploration of human empathy, Oh William! captures the joy and pain of watching children grow up and start families of their own; of discovering family secrets, late in life, that rearrange everything we think we know about those closest to us; and the way people live and love, despite the variety of obstacles we face in doing so. And at the heart of this story is the unforgettable, indomitable voice of Lucy Barton, who once again 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."


In Oh William!, readers revisit Lucy Barton, a writer, who fans of Strout may remember from My Name is Lucy Barton.  Her husband, David, has recently died and she is still grieving.  David is her second husband, the one who truly understood her.  She still has an amiable relationship with William, her first husband, and father of her kids.  Over the years, they have somehow remained friends and William often confides in Lucy things that he doesn't share with his wife. Lucy has now reached the age where her children have grown up, moved out, and she is getting used to this new quiet life without them and without David.  When William finds out a family secret, he turns to Lucy to help him unravel it and they travel to Maine to find out the truth.  It involves his mother, Catherine, whom Lucy has always admired. Lucy admits Catherine was a critical part of her relationship to William.  Elizabeth Strout's Oh William! is a quiet sort of novel that explores the human condition. It asks these questions: Do we ever really know someone? Do people ever change? Even Lucy says in Oh William!, "We are all mysteries."

I am ashamed to admit that I never read My Name is Lucy Barton, but I have heard so many amazing things about Strout, that I just had to pick up Oh William! I alternated between reading the text and listening to the audio version, which was actually an incredible experience as the audio book is outstanding.  Despite the fact that I didn't read the first book in the series, it didn't deter my enjoyment of this excellent novel, although I probably could have appreciated Lucy a bit more than I did if I was more familiar with her.

Lucy is a really interesting character in Oh William! She is a writer who is thoughtful, smart, complex, but also lonely and sad at times.  She wants to help William on his quest regarding the family secrets, but I am not sure she should as he is not a very nice guy.  He is a philanderer and he hasn't really changed since they were first together, but here she is dropping everything to help him out. Maybe it's because she cared so much for his mother and wants some answers as well? What Lucy finds out makes her have to really think about Catherine and see her in a new light.  She wonders if she ever truly knows someone...a question we can all relate to. Also, Strout is a master at character development, because it wasn't like there was much going on in Oh William!  The novel is a deep dive into the characters, their relationships, and how that evolves through the years.

Oh William! portrays life after children are grown and how that can feel empty at times, especially if your spouse dies. I found it to be a very thoughtful portrayal, but also deeply sad. Oh William! wasn't by any means a cheery tale that is comforting, but more of an accurate representation of a season of life that many of us will face or are currently facing.  While there's still much for Lucy to look forward to, she often finds herself looking backwards and thinking about all the things she wish she knew. Strout writes such a pensive novel and one that will stay with me for quite sometime. I can see why they call her a modern Hemingway as her writing isn't flowery, but it hits you right in the gut.  It means something and I found myself thinking about the Strout's deeper messages hidden just below the surface.

So, if you are looking for a smart read this fall or a compelling audio book to get lost in, I recommend Oh William!  Are you a fan of Elizabeth Strout? Have you read this book yet? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. 

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