“Oh William!” by Elizabeth Strout

Genre: Literary FictionOh William
Publisher: Random House
Pub. Date: October 19, 2021

In “Oh William!,” Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout explores the mysteries of friendship, marriage, loneliness, and betrayal in her unique, portrait-like style. This is the third book in her Amgash book series where all the novels take place in fictional Amgash, Illinois and the narrator is always a woman named Lucy Barton.  The author writes Lucy in a natural voice who is sharing her memories with us. For those who are familiar with the previous two novels, “Oh William!,” will feel like you are catching up with your old friend Lucy.

The third book picks up after the death of Lucy’s second husband.  She is now 63 and reflecting on her marriage to William who is the father of her two grown daughters. Even though he was unfaithful during the marriage, they remain close friends. This didn’t strike me as strange, though maybe that’s because I am a 65-year-old woman who remains friendly with my ex-husband. Still, I think the effectiveness of these characters is more rooted in the author’s ability to capture human behaviors, and our common imperfections.

Most of the plot takes place when William’s hardly-mentioned third wife leaves him. As in the other Amgash books, family secrets emerge. But the dots are connected slowly. William learns that before his mother, Katherine, married his father, she was married to another man and had a baby girl.  Katherine deserted them both. This changes all of William’s perceptions of his mother. Through a DNA match, he finds his half-sister lives in Maine. He wants to see her and he wants Lucy to accompany him to Maine. Why Lucy? because his first wife is his only wife who would be as shocked as he is with this new knowledge regarding his mom.  Young Lucy knew and loved Katherine too. She had a close relationship with her mother-in-law.  Lucy agrees to join William and together they travel to Maine.

This trip is the meat of the story.  It is bittersweet. You’ll be drawn in when reading about Lucy’s memories with William before and after their divorce.  During the trip, William says, “I’m sorry.” Without any explanation of what he is referring to, Lucy replies, “I know.”  Lucy and William’s life together feels very real. Stout manages this accomplishment while writing in sparse sentences, and poetry-like prose. If you are not accustomed to the author’s style, it might take some time to appreciate this novel, but it is so worth the effort.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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