Oh, William is the third book in Elizabeth Strout’s Amgash tetralogy. It was preceded by a novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton, and a linked story collection, Anything Is Possible. It was followed by a fourth book, Lucy by the Sea. This third book in the series was published on October 19, 2021.
Oh, William is a novel that returns to Lucy Barton as the first-person narrator. On its face, the novel purports to be about Lucy’s relationship with her ex-husband, William. At some point while I was reading Oh, William, I looked up something I’d heard—that actor Laura Linney had inspired the book by a single thing she suggested during a table read for the one-woman show based on My Name Is Lucy Barton (which I’m dying to have missed). Linney suggested, “What if William was cheating?” and the idea for Oh, William was born.
At one point in the series, Lucy is happy to learn that a reader understands that her memoir, about being in the hospital and her mother being there, is not about mothers and daughters, but is about poverty. But this book has me wondering whether Lucy realizes she is writing about her relationship with her mother as much as her relationship with poverty. How reliable a narrator is Lucy? Oh, William screams mothers and daughters to me, mothers and motherhood, not only Lucy and her own mother, but Lucy as the mother of her daughters. She again writes about loving our mothers even though they are imperfect, and she bends over backward to give her own mother the benefit of the doubt at times. But she is terrified that her two daughters, Chrissy and Becka, cannot love her.
“Walking down the sidewalk I thought how my mother had never said I love you to me, and I thought how Chrissy had been going to call the baby Lucy. She loved me, my daughter! Even knowing this, I was surprised. In truth, I was amazed.”
There is also a strong theme of replacement mothers—those women who come into our lives when our own mothers cannot be with us for whatever reason. Women like William’s mother, Catherine, and the “nice mother [Lucy] made up over the years.” Throughout this novel, Lucy gets things from different people that she wasn’t able to get from her parents. On the one hand, Lucy is naïve about a lot of things (television, restaurants, things she didn’t experience growing up), but on the other hand she observes and soaks up so much from the people she comes into contact with in her life—she becomes wise about so many other things, much wiser than those around her.
Lucy is a middle-aged woman now, divorced from William, with two adult daughters. The novel explores William’s infidelity, but also the lingering effects of poverty—things like Lucy’s relationships with food, clothing, and warmth become important. Her relative lack of concern about what William does or doesn’t do. Also resiliency—not only being able to survive and make something of oneself, but the ability to be joyful and to love others, the ability to love even when you are not a person who “came fully from love from the moment they were born.” Throughout the novel, Lucy refers to her “tiny childhood home,” and it feels like a metaphor for the box she came from, her childhood, the limited dreams she was allowed, the things we as people and as writers can never really leave behind.
Strout also explores the selfish giving of gifts that the giver really wants for themselves, versus choosing something the recipient would want. This hearkens back to the tape recorder in the short story “Snow Blind” from Anything Is Possible and continues in this novel with the golf clubs Lucy’s mother-in-law gives her and William’s childishness about the gifts he receives. Interestingly, the last story in Anything Is Possible is called “Gift,” and readers will be inspired to think about what gifts truly are and the meaning we ascribe to them.
This is perhaps the most metafictive of the books in the series: Elizabeth Strout is an author writing in first person as a narrator who is a writer and who is writing this book and reminding us of other things she’s written in a previous book.
The first two books in the series, My Name Is Lucy Barton and Anything Is Possible, were easy, engaging reads. I read them in a weekend, then started Oh, William. The book is broken into two long chapters: the first is one hundred pages long, and the other is more than two hundred pages long. Each chapter is broken up into many section breaks. It was more difficult reading, long passages of narrative prose, interiority, introspection, with infrequent scenes, and I don’t think this is by accident. I think Strout intends it to be more difficult and thought-provoking.
It was a more difficult read for me, in part because of the structure, but also because I found myself taking so many notes for this book—I didn’t love it as much as I’d loved Anything Is Possible, which is my favorite book in the series. But it is so filled with deeper meaning that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I took voluminous notes in my reading journal, and I had a dream (half nightmare) the night I finished it, although like many such dreams, it gradually slipped from my mind and is now gone. The book, however, has stuck with me.