Elizabeth Strout Gets Meta in Her New Novel About Marriage – The New York Times

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By Elizabeth Strout
One proof of Elizabeth Strout’s greatness is the sleight of hand with which she injects sneaky subterranean power into seemingly transparent prose. Strout works in the realm of everyday speech, conjuring repetitions, gaps and awkwardness with plain language and forthright diction, yet at the same time unleashing a tidal urgency that seems to come out of nowhere even as it operates in plain sight. Consider this distillation of fact and feeling from her affecting new novel, “Oh William!”:
He never spoke of the war; my mother must have told us that he fought in it, because I was aware of that fact growing up. The way in which his post-traumatic stress (although I did not know that term at the time) manifested itself was an anxiety so great that it seemed to produce sexual urges in him almost constantly. Often he walked around the house —
I am not going to say any more about this.
But I loved him, my father.
I did.
Strout fans will recognize the speaker as Lucy Barton, the narrator of Strout’s excellent 2016 novel, “My Name Is Lucy Barton,” and a character in her 2017 novel, “Anything Is Possible.”
“Oh William!” picks up decades after “Lucy Barton,” with Lucy newly widowed by the death of her second husband, and her grown daughters both married. In the interim, Lucy has become the famous author of several books — at least some of which are apparently autobiographical. “Oh William!” underscores its sequel-dom to “Lucy Barton” with frequent allusions to material covered in that earlier work. It also mirrors “Lucy Barton” in structure and tone; “Oh William!” is a brief, swirling account of present-day events that rouse memories of past events and prompt a reckoning.
“William” is Lucy’s first husband, William Gerhardt, now 71, a scientist, professor, and the father of her two daughters. A series of crises in William’s life sets the novel in motion: His third wife leaves him without warning, taking their teenage daughter with her; his career begins to peter out; and an ancestry website reveals that he has a half sister living in Maine, a discovery that strongly suggests that his long-dead mother, Catherine — to whom Lucy was very close — abandoned a young daughter to marry William’s father, a German prisoner of war, in the decade after World War II.
In desperation, William turns to Lucy, and in her grief and solitude, she throws herself into helping, agreeing to accompany him (platonically) to Maine to seek out his newly discovered half sister and visit several sites from his mother’s early life. Strout devotees may experience a frisson at Lucy and William’s Maine itinerary, which grazes the fictional locus of “Olive Kittredge” (for which Strout won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009), “Olive Again,”Amy and Isabelle” and “The Burgess Boys,” the latter of whom are mentioned by name. “Oh William!” wears these connections lightly, but they lend the novel a prickle of cosmic convergence.
Marriage is Strout’s subject in “Oh William!” and she writes about it with brilliance, whether rendering the refuge and deliverance William and his mother provided Lucy from her impoverished childhood, or the tiny offenses that can accrue toxic symbolism in the course of a relationship: the time William took too long eating a bowl of clams when their daughters were young or the fact that the khakis he wears to begin their Maine adventure are ridiculously short.
“At times in our marriage I loathed him,” Lucy narrates. “I saw, with a kind of dull disc of dread in my chest, that with his pleasant distance, his mild expressions, he was unavailable. But worse. Because beneath his height of pleasantness there lurked a juvenile crabbiness, a scowl that flickered across his soul, a pudgy little boy with his lower lip thrust forward who blamed this person and that person — he blamed me, I felt this often.” She goes on, “He blamed me even as he called me ‘Sweetheart,’ making my coffee — back then he never drank coffee but he made me a cup each morning — setting it down before me martyr-like.”
Marriage to William caused a rupture between Lucy and her troubled family — in part because her war-traumatized father intuited William’s German origins and turned him away from the house. Recalling her wedding, at which none of her own family members was present, Lucy describes a kind of dissociation that overtook her that day: a sense of unreality that never fully lifted, and damaged her marriage. “It ebbed and flowed — but it was a terrible thing,” Strout writes. “And I could not describe it to him or even to myself, but it was a private quiet horror that sat beside me often, and at night in bed I could not be quite as I had once been with him.” Furthermore, “There seemed nothing to be done about it. And nothing was done about it. Because I could not speak of it and William became less happy and he closed down in small ways, I could see that happen. And we lived our lives on top of this.”
The source of Lucy’s dissociation is the anguish of her childhood, whose misery radiates through “Oh William!” as it did through “Lucy Barton.” Even as the mother of healthy adult daughters, a successful writer and teacher who is flown first class to literary events around the world, Lucy continues to regard herself as invisible, marked and separate. She is prone to crippling bouts of panic. “There have been a few times — and I mean recently — when I feel the curtain of my childhood descend around me once again,” Lucy says. “A terrible enclosure, a quiet horror … the sense of doom I grew up with, knowing I could never leave that house (except to go to school, which meant the world to me, even though I had no friends there, but I was out of the house).”
The gap between Lucy’s inner and outer landscapes forms the crux of “Oh William!” As a reader, I experienced this gap uneasily at times, in a disconnect between Lucy’s literary reputation and her occasionally fumbling narrative turns. Coming from a celebrated author, phrases like “I didn’t live there, except I kind of did” or “She was pretty — sort of, I think — ” can seem loose, or mannered. The word “weird” is overused.
But the tension between Lucy’s inner voice and her worldly identity turns out to be exactly what Strout wants the reader to track, and what Lucy herself must grapple with in the course of the novel. “Oh William!” is a testament to the way that making a family — in Lucy’s case through marriage and motherhood — creates a fresh structure of myth and meaning atop the primal one. Strout renders this truth about Lucy’s marriage to William as she did its deficits: through sparkling, incisive details. “I remembered one drive back East when he had said I could throw my peach pit out the window,” Lucy recalls, “and I had thrown it out his window for some reason, he was driving, and the peach pit hit him in the face, and I remember we laughed and laughed, as if it were the funniest thing that had ever happened … I thought to myself: William is the only person I ever felt safe with. He is the only home I ever had.”
In the end, “Oh William!” suggests that it isn’t enough to build a new, sturdier, happier life — rare and impressive though that feat may be. To fully inhabit that new life, one must override the damaged childhood version of oneself and own one’s accomplishments. Anything less carries the risk of solipsism, and self-absorption. Or, as Lucy Barton puts it, “I am not invisible no matter how deeply I feel that I am.”
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