Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout review – Lucy Barton’s return brings intense pleasures

·4 min read

They say good things come in threes and although it feels as though this latest novel about Lucy Barton marks the completion of a trilogy, can I put in an early request? For a tetralogy, a pentalogy or whatever comes after that?

Just as a quality, long-form TV series becomes greater than the sum of its episodes by the sheer cumulative effect of character and backstory across seasons, so too Elizabeth Strout seems to be generating a similarly holistic – and entirely original – form of fiction writing. Of course, novel sequences are nothing new, but they nearly always move chronologically forwards through an ever-continuing story.

With Oh William! and its predecessor, Anything Is Possible, however, Strout is constantly weaving new strands alongside the main narrative, skidding backwards and forwards in time, but also – and satisfyingly – sideways to siblings, to neighbours, to offspring. So it isn’t a linear narrative so much as a Venn diagram that is being drawn around Lucy and the result is that every action she takes, every decision she mulls is already surrounded by intersecting circles. And now, with this new book, we know so much more about where and exactly how those circles will collide.

The life of Lucy Barton remains the crucial central pivot – this woman “who came from nothing” and who, despite real success as a writer, believes herself to be “invisible”, remaining for ever the victim of her upbringing, her brutal poverty, her uncommunicative father and her unsmiling, unloving mother. In this volume, when she recalls her surprise at a therapist speedily diagnosing PTSD, part of the moment’s power is that it comes as no surprise at all to the reader.

Indeed, Lucy’s lack of self-awareness remains the abiding drive of these novels, coupled with her desire to understand more: about her own choices (few), about the failure of others to choose well and about the never-ceasing clash of desire and obligation. Throughout the novel, Lucy launches questions at herself to which she can find no answer. Meanwhile, William, Lucy’s first husband and the central case study of this new instalment, tells her, mid-argument: “Once every so often – at the most – I think someone actually chooses something. Otherwise we’re following something – we don’t know what it is but we follow it… We just do – we just do, Lucy.”

Lucy’s lack of self-unawareness remains the abiding drive of these novels – coupled with her desire to understand more

Of course, what William has followed, most assiduously, is his libido. Their marriage foundered on the other women he was “doing” while still married to Lucy. And although Lucy initially forgave him, ultimately this did at least lead to one of those rare moments when she made a choice: “One day I picked up the phone and I called a mattress store.” With possessions in a garbage bag, she walked out to a rented apartment.

But was it really a choice or is there a larger pattern forming around William? Because early on in this novel, his third and most recent wife also walks out, simply moving to Greenwich Village and leaving a note. And long before that, as everyone has always known, William’s mother walked out on her first husband (a Maine potato farmer) for a German PoW (sent to dig those potatoes).

But what no one knew, until William is given a genealogy website subscription for his birthday, is that his mother also abandoned a baby girl when she walked out that day. And this fact unmans him. So, with both of them now single again, Lucy agrees to accompany William up to Maine (AKA Kitteridge country) in order to find out more about that half-sister.

And it’s against this backdrop of desolate fields and grimly foreclosed towns, that the novel’s cunning complexity reveals itself. Strout, as ever, does not rely on plot, instead stuttering between randomly remembered moments, whether a panicky evasion or an incomplete conversation, which build the picture of a shared life and its lonely aftermath. Though to label them random undersells the quiet virtuosity: what we have here are exquisitely choreographed flashes of lightning that illuminate the confusion and contradictions and misjudgements of any marriage. And without the usual kind of narrative dilemma waiting to be satisfied, the intense pleasure of Strout’s writing becomes the simple joy of learning more while – always – understanding less. “We are all mysterious, is what I mean,” says Lucy towards the close of this novel, leaving us already hungry for the next one.

  • Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout is published by Viking (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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