Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Reading group: Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout

Continuing family matters and catching up with my novel-in-progress after almost two months of illness have gone on keeping me from other things, including the reports of our reading group discussions. I am pleased to say that I have now got to the end of the first, handwritten draft of my novel (I always do the first draft by hand), and now I have a bit of a breather in which to let the whole thing settle in my mind before typing the next (I hope final) draft. This means that at last I can turn to those reports, though I'm afraid that after all this time my memory of the discussions will not be the most detailed, and the reports will therefore probably be brief.

At the end of January we met at Mark's to discuss this new novel by Elizabeth Strout, suggested by Ann. We had all very much liked My Name is Lucy Barton, another concerning the same first-person protagonist (Lucy Barton), and were therefore keen to read this. (In fact Oh William! is the third in the series, which most of us hadn't realised when we chose the book, although it didn't in fact matter that we hadn't read the second.) We were by no means disappointed; in fact we liked and admired this novel even more: we were full of unanimous praise.

In this book, Laura Barton recounts how, while grieving the death of her second husband, she becomes involved in a crisis being experienced by William, her first husband. William's current wife leaves him at the same time that, through family history research, he uncovers an alarming and unsuspected, indeed unlikely-seeming truth about his own mother. This prompts him to feel the need to travel back to Maine, from where his mother came, and Lucy agrees to accompany him. Over the course of these events we are treated to Lucy's reminiscences and meditations, and while little happens in the present time level - although it all leads to a revelation that turns much on its head - the history of Lucy's relationships with both husbands, with her daughters and with William's mother unfolds. And while Lucy's own difficult origins are presented more glancingly than in the previous books, they still movingly underpin the whole novel.

Once again, the thing that most struck us was the way that the plain, easy prose manages to convey huge complexities of emotion and of relationships, to deeply moving effect. The whole experience of reading the book is of being spoken to intimately by someone revealing their deepest reminiscences and thoughts in a conversational, sometimes casually stream-of consciousness manner: 

I think I have mentioned the business about my father because as I was packing for Maine, I thought of William's father...

And another quote: 

I think I have to mention this, although I have said I would not talk about David [her second husband], but I think you should know...

And another: 

I have written about [my own mother] and I really do not want to write anything else about her. But I understand one might need to know a few things for this story.

 However, in spite of this almost rambling, naive-seeming style, the novel is in fact very tightly structured, and the final revelation pulls everything together, bringing all the previously planted clues and indictors into a focussed pattern.

The whole thing seemed so emotionally truthful that some of us felt sure that it must be autobiographical, and this seems to be corroborated by the fact that towards the end there is a discussion between Lucy and another character about the two preceding real-life novels - which in the novel are written by Lucy Barton - and whether she will include the character in her next. However, Clare was sure that it was not autobiographical, and a glance at Elizabeth Strout's biography shows that she did not share the deprived and poverty-stricken background of Lucy's that provides the basic pulse of these novels. Ann made a very interesting and astute suggestion, which was that it is autobiographical in that Lucy Barton is an alter ego for the author. I must say that as a writer that really struck a chord for me: autobiography need not necessarily be characterised by verifiable facts, but can operate on an emotional and psychological level.

In any case, the whole thing seemed extremely real to all of us, and although Mark did then start cavilling about the ending, which he found somehow artificial, no one else agreed with him, and we were very glad to have read the book.

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here 

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