August 2022 Open Book Group – Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout

Welcome to Susan and Steve. Thank you to Trish for moderating Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout.

We first met Lucy Barton in My name is Lucy Barton (OBG June 2017) 30 years later in Oh William! we meet her again. In the wake of being widowed from her happy marriage to David Abramson, Lucy is now a successful 63-year-old writer and mother of two grown-up daughters from her first husband William Gerhardt. William, a physically fit 71-year-old parasitology researcher, is beset with problems. His third wife Estelle has left him taking their 10-year-old daughter and much of the furniture with her.

Bewildered, William turns his attention to his other problem; the discovery that his mother had a daughter from her first marriage to a potato farmer in Maine. Catherine left her first husband and daughter, Lois Bubar, to marry William’s father, Wilhelm Gerhardt. Wilhelm was a prisoner of war who fought on the German side during World War II. William had a difficult relationship with his parents.

William invites Lucy on a trip to Maine to meet his lost half-sister. She agrees to go because she still cares for William and welcomes the distraction from her grief over David

Lucy grew up in a tiny house in the middle of the Illinois soybean fields. She panics at the empty Maine landscape. It reminds her of the isolation of her unhappy and impoverished childhood. The rural setting inspires feelings of invisibility and worthlessness that predominated during her years of deprivation. Lucy realises William has his own issues with his mother who rejected him. This caused him to feel rejected by women even as he has continually sought their comfort in three marriages and extramarital affairs.

As events on the trip unfold Lucy explores the nature of her relationship with William. Once she returns to New York she realises that William does not have the aura of authority and protection he once held over her

“This is the way of life.” Lucy says” The many things we do not know until it is too late”.

With Elizabeth Strout on the menu this month we were back in well-loved territory. Over the years we have read many books in her oeuvre My Name is Lucy Barton (OBG June 2017), Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge (OBG April 2020), and Olive, again (OBG July 2021). So, it was no surprise we had a full house of 15 OBGers gathered around our large Covid-aware table.

Initial discussions centred around Strout’s use of her titular phase, Oh William! so effectively. When she saw him approaching her in short trousers, what are you wearing? Oh William! She also used it more generously when he complimented her. Oh William! We noted how Strout’s writing often leaves spaces on the page for you to interpret what is going on beneath. One member felt that Oh William! had appeared in the text far more than it did. She found herself inserting the slur. In contrast to Strout’s other novels that are written in conventional literary style Oh William! is much looser and more conversational. Lucy’s thoughts and memories jump backwards and forwards in time. Not everyone was a fan. Some found her style irritating and gave up early, bucking the trend of the group

Members enjoyed Strout’s habit of main characters from one book making fleeting appearances in other books. She did not disappoint here with eagle-eyed readers spotting the Burgess brothers.

Some thought Lucy was unrealistically generous. Why would she be so supportive of her serial cheating ex-husband? Why would she go on a road trip with him? Others were more understanding of Lucy’s motives. She had arrived at college as a scholarship student from a very disadvantaged background. When she fell in love with and married lecturer William, she entered another social stratum. They lived in New York, had two children together and she became a famous writer. She left William after he philandered, but she moved on to a happy marriage with David. Now she is looking back over her marriage to William the anger has dissipated. She is willing to support him.

Another member noted that, like Lucy, William had suffered a difficult childhood. He referenced philosopher Alain de Bottom who argues we are often subconsciously attracted to partners with similar childhood experiences.

Grimm’s fairy tale Hansel and Gretel was mentioned. This invoked an interesting comparison between Hansel and Gretel wandering in the forest seeking the gingerbread house and William and Lucy driving around Maine looking for Lois Bubar’s house.

A member argued that Oh William! was Lucy’s memoir of her life. We only ever heard Lucy‘s voice so it was unreliable, as all memoirs are. We never heard anyone else’s view of her marriages and their protagonists. Further, she felt Lucy had given William a soft ride by accepting, what she termed, the myth of natural male authority. Lucy claims she felt safe with him despite his numerous affairs. She absolves him of taking responsibility for his actions by stating he simply married the wrong women. However, by the end of the book, William does lose his authority over her when she realises, he is not the person she thought she had married.

Can we ever truly understand another person? No responded one member as she delighted in Oh William!’s closing lines “But we are all mythologies, mysterious. We are all mysteries, is what I mean. This may be the only thing in the world I know to be true.”


Leave a Comment