Lucy Barton is a successful writer living in New York, navigating the second half of her life as a recent widow and parent to two adult daughters. A surprise encounter leads her to reconnect with William, her first husband – and longtime, on-again-off-again friend and confidante. Recalling their college years, 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 tender, complex, decades-long partnership.
…on some very fundamental level, I feel invisible in the world.
I have had Elizabeth Strout on my reading radar for a while – her Olive Kitteridge novels had snuck their way onto my reading list – but I had never actually got around to reading them. And this year she appears on the Booker Prize Longlist, and also urged by my aunt, I did pick up Oh William. Book three in a series. Without reading the previous books. With no preconceptions.
So what did I find?
I found Lucy Barton. A late lifer at 63 years old, a successful novelist, a survivor of two marriages and mother to two daughters. And a very distinctive narrative voice from her.
Strout – it seems to me – has a genuine ear for the flow and rhythm of speech. Lucy Barton’s narration feels deeply authentic and conversational: her sentences sometimes run on and on, sometimes are cut short; her narrative is almost a stream-of-consciousness, punctuated by meanderings and remembrances, flowing in and out of flashbacks; her anecdotes are often abandoned with an “And that’s all I want to say about that” or an “And so, there was that.”
In terms of plotting, Lucy is at something of a turning point in her life: her beloved husband, David, has just died and she is living alone in her (equally beloved) New York. At the same time, her ex-husband and father to their two children – our eponymous William – whom she had left years earlier is left by his current wife, Estelle. Lucy and William had remained on good terms over their separation – so much so that William, who suffers night terrors, is comforted that he knows he would always be able to call Lucy.
A somewhat unwanted gift to William from Estelle, before the marriage ended, had been an ancestry research voucher that he had used, and which had turned up a previously unknown elder half-sister still living in Maine, in the same town where William’s mother, Catherine Cole had been born and raised. A sort of genteel road trip ensues where William invites Lucy to go and visit Maine and find this lost sister. William’s plan is, perhaps, less to meet her than it is to visit the places that were important to her – the street on which she lives, the town where she won a beauty pageant, the farm where her father had met her mother. And this is a book very much about place – the series is named Amgash for the ruinous Illinois town where Lucy grew up – as much as it is about person, and the interplay between them. And about class in America, about which Lucy declaims
“I have never fully understood the whole class business in America,”
But she is also painfully aware, even after an objectively successful life and comfortable living that she comes “from the very bottom of it, and when that happens it never really leaves you”.
Lucy herself had been born, in Amgash, into both crippling poverty and abuse at the hands of her parents which is hinted at here but not explored… which irked me. It is a critical part of Lucy’s characterisation, but was one of those topics that Lucy brought up and then declared that she didn’t want to say any more about. I confess, this disgruntlement may be my own fault: it is possible, looking at the blurb for My Name is Lucy Barton, that that earlier book had dealt with that particular backstory and the itch that I wanted to scratch is because I hadn’t read those earlier books.
Despite the fluid and informal conversational tone and structure, the themes and motifs and echoes and parallels between characters form a surprisingly taut web. Catherine Cole, coming from and working her way out of poverty is an echo of Lucy’s own journey; the unknown sister whose mother walked out on her; phone calls – an interesting motif, a means of connecting people whilst simultaneously emphasising their distance – recur throughout the narrative. Catherine Cole, for all that she is deceased, is perhaps the most vivid character in the novel for me, langorous, refined, whisking Lucy away to the Cayman Islands, but confessing her occasional depression and “blue” moods. The discovery of her childhood home and abject poverty of her beginnings was more of a shock than then discovery of her long-lost daughter.
In fact, the moment where Lucy recalls being completely at a loss of how to behave, or how to simply be, in a hotel was both deeply poignant and also comical, and one of the best moments in the novel.
I had no idea – no idea at all – what to do: how to use the hotel key, what to wear to the pool, how to sit by the pool.
Overall, whilst I can recognise and respect the art – both the artistry and the artifice as well – in Strout’s writing, I found the crafting of it was almost too consciously done, too deliberately in the creation of Lucy Barton’s voice.
I also found myself struggling to actually like the characters – again perhaps as a result of not reading the earlier entries. William in particular was actually quite an unpleasant person to be spending a novel dwelling on – not as abusively unpleasant perhaps as Collins Braithwaite in Case Study by Graeme Macrae Burnet, also longlisted for the Booker, but he struck me as weak, childish, petulant. And, yes, a serial adulterer who showed no evidence of remorse, regret or even recognition of the pain he caused others. Lucy Barton’s assertions that he was the only man with whom she felt “safe” and that he had “authority” were at odds with the character that I read. And, perhaps that is deliberate. The title, of course, Oh William! may be a cry of joy or of exasperation, and perhaps Lucy’s real journey in the novel was not the one to Maine to find his long-lost sister, but the journey to explore, re-define and re-negotiate her relationship with him. But did so much of that have to come down to his moustache?
What I Liked
- The language and the creation of Lucy Barton’s narrative voice.
- Lucy’s relationship with her daughters.
- The use of setting and place to explore the issue of class in America.
What Could Have Been Different
- I found the characters hard to sympathise with, especially William.
- The novel was, for me, somewhat overly artful in its apparent artlessness.