by Elizabeth Strout
Published May 2022
And to anyone who needs it – this is for you.
So reads one of the dedications in Elizabeth Strout’s latest novel, Oh William! Strout is probably best known for her creation of Olive Kitteridge, a recurring character in the interconnected short story collections Olive Kitteridge and Olive, Again, both set in the fictional town of Crosby, Maine; but I first discovered her work though another recurring character, Lucy Barton. Lucy, also from Maine but now living in New York, appeared in Strout’s short story collection Anything is Possible and in the novel My Name is Lucy Barton. We follow her story again in Oh William!
The dedication brought me back to the first time I encountered Strout. A couple of years ago I randomly picked up My Name is Lucy Barton in the Dymocks in Westfield Parramatta, which had the particular ambience that all Westfields seem to have – noisy, shiny, and this time, with Christmas decorations beginning to appear. I was looking for a distracting read or maybe some kind of help – a Westfield is a strange place to go looking for salvation, I know, but having grown up here I also know we’re lucky to even have a small branch of Dymocks inside a shopping centre.
I had just returned to Sydney from Prague because my mother had been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. We were preparing for the biggest fight of her life – each day filled with the highly-strung tension of emergency hospital visits, regular chemo and radiation sessions, visiting specialists in alternative therapies, endless pills and supplements to organise, organic food to prepare. Every day, all energy and attention pivoted around just one thing: beating her cancer. The whiteboard my sisters had placed on the kitchen wall was the physical manifestation of this, a colour-coded schedule and reminder of everything that had to be done for Mum each day.
I don’t know what made me pick up this particular book, but I did. Set in a New York hospital, My Name is Lucy Barton begins with Lucy Barton, a young mother, waking up after an operation to find her own mother sitting by her bedside. Lucy has not seen her mother for years, and the book moves back and forth between the five days her mother stays with her in the hospital, to Lucy’s childhood in Maine. The novel is about childhood trauma in the context of poverty and social mobility, and how this trauma shapes who we are years later in adulthood. It is also about being a motherless daughter, even if our mothers are still alive, and how we will always long to be mothered by them:
Her being there, using my pet name, which I had not heard in ages, made me feel warm and liquid-filled, as though all my tension had been a solid thing and now was not.
I identified with Lucy, who is also a writer, who also leaves home and never goes back, whose parents struggled with financial and psychological trauma, who finally becomes successful in climbing the social ladder. Most of all, I identified with Lucy as a motherless daughter.
Why is it that reading something that so closely mirrors our own experience acts as a healing balm? Is it feeling less alone, like someone out there can understand what we are going through? It wasn’t only my mother’s cancer diagnosis that was devastating; facing the possibility of having to stay indefinitely in Sydney after nearly twenty years away, the issues between my mother and myself re-emerging in that kind of stressful context – it felt overwhelming. I was not coping.
The time that Lucy shares with her estranged mother in hospital shows that sometimes a moment, and not a perfect one at that, can be enough. This novel really did come to me when I needed it, in one of those moments that has happened to me from time to time – that is, that a book has saved me.
In Oh William! Lucy is now divorced from her first husband (the titular William) and has remarried. Her daughters, who were young children in the previous book, are now grown up and married themselves. We also find out what happened with her own family; the last time Lucy saw her mother was a few years after the end of My Name Is Lucy Barton, when her mother was dying in a hospital and she asked Lucy to leave. Lucy has also started talking to her siblings again after years of estrangement.
Although we learn much about Lucy and her life, Oh William! is focused on her ex-husband William, albeit through Lucy’s perspective. The incident that sets off the novel is William’s discovery, after the death of his mother Catherine, that she ‘had had a child before he was born. With her husband Clyde Trask, the potato farmer in Maine.’ William’s father is Catherine’s second husband, a German POW, who, after the second world war, was sent to work on the potato fields in Maine that belonged to Catherine’s first husband.
The discovery that Catherine had a daughter with her first husband, whom she abandoned in order to run away with William’s father, sends William into shock. William asks Lucy to go with him to Maine to look for this half-sister, Lois, and this trip forms the main plot of the book.
We see William through Lucy’s eyes, but consequently we see Lucy too. When the book opens, David, Lucy’s second husband, has died. She says of her second husband that they were ‘kind of made for each other’. Yet, on the discovery of David’s illness, and then his death, ‘It was William I called first.’ It is William with whom she feels truly at home, even as he lets her down in many ways, even as she has already moved on and loves someone else. Strout skilfully and empathetically shows how our first serious love can indelibly change us, contributing to who we are as adults and remaining a part of us long after we have left them.
Oh William! is written in first person, allowing us to closely follow Lucy’s thoughts and feelings. In the novel, Strout often places two contradictory statements side by side. For example, by the end of the book Lucy comes to the realisation:
William was like the light in the museum, only I had lived my life thinking it was worth something.
Then I thought: It was worth something!
This expansive style allows two seemingly opposed thoughts to be true at once. This is also well-evoked in Lucy’s feelings towards her former mother-in-law: Catherine was both ‘central to our marriage,’ but also intrusive, condescending and controlling. It is only after Catherine dies that Lucy is able to buy her own clothes.
This sense of expansiveness, the way that it can embrace and elucidate complicated feelings –particularly towards others – is perhaps one of the most comforting aspects of the worlds Strout creates. In Olive Kitteridge and Olive, Again, we get to know both Olive and the other people in the community in all their contradictions, quirks and darkest moments. We are not alone, these books seem to be saying, and it is possible to accept all that exists in life.
There are moments of wisdom in Oh William!, insights that feel hard-won, as when Lucy reflects on her decision to leave William:
What do I do? Do I leave or do I stay? It had felt like a choice to me then. But remembering this now, I realised that also during that whole year I made no motion to put myself back inside the marriage; I kept myself separate is what I mean. Even as I thought I was deciding.
A friend had said to me once, “Whenever I don’t know what to do, I watch what I am doing.” And what I was doing that year was leaving, even though I had not left yet.
But these moments of wisdom and exploration of Lucy’s grief (the grief of divorce, death of a partner, grief over childhood) in Oh William! are overshadowed by the titular character himself. We watch as Lucy’s life becomes focused on William after the discovery that he has a long-lost sister.
In the novel William is an utterly self-absorbed and not particularly appealing character. While married to Lucy he cheats on her multiple times including with one of her friends whom he later marries, and then divorces. His third wife is much younger, and he has a child with her thirty years after his last daughter with Lucy. But Oh William! is also a sympathetic portrait of Lucy’s ex, who ‘has a lot of money and… gives a lot of it away.’ We learn that William came into money from his German grandfather, who profited from the war. We also learn that, previously, William and Lucy went to Germany to visit the concentration camps in Dachau. After this trip, William suffers from night terrors.
When William discovers that his mother hid a sister from him, he is devastated. Lucy reflects that ‘[i]t broke my heart, and somewhere I faintly understood that he must have felt that his mother had betrayed him as two of his wives had done.’ This connection seems strange, considering William cheated on Lucy multiple times during their marriage, including with her closest friend, as well as on his other wives. What about his betrayals and abandonments? During their trip to Maine in search of his sister, William accuses Lucy of being self-absorbed because during a conversation she doesn’t show enough interest in his work as a lab researcher; Lucy is chastened, and yet – she has taken this trip for him.
In fact, all the women in William’s life enable and look after him: Catherine his mother, Lucy, and their two daughters. It is Lucy who stays at home with Catherine when she is diagnosed with cancer, while they also hire a housekeeper; William is sheltered from the inconveniences in life, including having to care for his own sick mother. The only person who doesn’t seem to pander to him is his third wife Estelle; years younger, wealthy and a sometime actress, she ends up leaving him. His daughters and Lucy make fun of Estelle because she comes from a rich family, but they conveniently forget about William’s wealth, and therefore, their own.
You could argue that Strout is extending the kind of compassion to William that she extends to her other characters, that she has amply shown in her previous books. But there is more than just compassion given here; William is indulged in his self-preoccupation and insularity, never being asked to take responsibility by the women in his life, by society at large or by the book itself.
Instead, this kind of indulgence is indicative of the world that William comes from, and which Lucy now occupies – that class of entitled, affluent people. And that’s the thing about this book, it is annoying to read – to put it bluntly – yet another story about a self-absorbed, rich white man; yet another chronicle of the problems and foibles of wealthy New Yorkers (or from anywhere really). It really is not that interesting, yet Strout spends a whole book redeeming William through Lucy’s eyes, giving space to his issues and selfishness – when people like him already takes up so much space in the world. We have libraries full of books redeeming wealthy white men, and it could be argued our culture redeems wealthy, powerful people, particularly men (‘failing upwards’), so why another one? Whether he is worthy to be redeemed or not is beside the point.
This is grating because Lucy’s life in Oh William! – one in which we only had glimpses of in My Name is Lucy Barton since it focused more on her childhood – is the stereotype of New York’s cultural elite: Lucy is a novelist, William is a professor at a university. Lucy’s second husband David was a cellist and William’s current wife is an actress, while Lucy and William’s daughters, with husbands in finance and poetry, both live in Brooklyn. Lucy and William talk about whether being a poet means their son-in-law might be self-absorbed. Do we really need another novel about these kinds of people?
And there is the other problematic thing about this book – all the labour (and people) that go into making this world tick is invisible, erased. The doorman to Lucy’s apartment, the people who serve Lucy and William in their expensive hotels on holidays, are all simply bit parts; these kinds of people are as invisible to the wealthy in literature as they are in real life. A stunning example is when Lucy remarks on the cleanliness of Catherine’s house:
I thought I had stepped into heaven. Catherine’s entire house was clean; the wooden floors in the living room shone a honey color, and the bedrooms had curtains that were white and starched-looking. Never did I think I could live like that. It did not occur to me. But that she lived like that! Really I could not get over it.
But who is doing the cleaning? Lucy never wonders and the way she describes it, it’s almost as if it happens by magic, because it’s definitely not Catherine who is cleaning. Class is erased again when it comes to healthcare. When Catherine has cancer, Lucy says that ‘Catherine’s doctor spoke to me on the phone every day; he called with a regularity that I loved him for.’ As someone whose own mother was a cancer patient in a public hospital, I know that this never happens. Did Lucy’s parents have a doctor call them every day when they were ill? She never remarks on the discrepancy, on how this is actually not very common, that Catherine must’ve had a private doctor; it is strange that she would not notice considering her background.
As Lucy never questions who does all the cleaning in the clean house she admires, or who gets to have a doctor call them every day, neither do we as readers have to. It is simply just the way things are – in a novel that is so concerned with class, these feels like glaring omissions.
And I think this is where I was previously mistaken. I thought Strout’s books are about class, and they are, but in a much more specific sense – they are really about social mobility. And I realised while reading Oh William! that many of Strout’s characters in her other books besides Lucy Barton also move up the social ladder. In Amy and Isabelle, Amy becomes a doctor. Jim and Bob Burgess from the Burgess Boys become lawyers. Many other characters in her fictional town in Maine, especially the children, move upwards out of poverty.
But it is in the world of Oh William! in particular that wealth is not problematic in itself – in fact, it gives access to art and culture. Social mobility admits Lucy to this part of society, and she is particularly grateful to William for it. There’s a kind of My Fair Lady energy here, with Catherine and William ‘educating’ Lucy – from buying her clothes to taking her on resort holidays; it almost feels as if that is why Lucy puts up with William’s behaviour, because she’s forever grateful for the way William has pulled her up into culture: ‘He did that for me.’
In Oh William! intergenerational chains can be broken – Catherine, just like Lucy, also came from abject poverty. Both have escaped their backgrounds, and with that comes a shift in their perspective. When Lucy and William are on their trip to Maine, they find the house that Catherine grew up in, a literal shack:
“This is a horror movie,” William said.
This, horror, is what poverty looks like through upper-middle class liberal eyes. Lucy now sees through these eyes too:
I glanced at William and his face looked so bewildered, it made me ache for him. And I understood: Never in my life would I have imagined Catherine coming from such a place.
Although the book describes a lower-working class world, mainly when they are visiting Maine, a world that is filled with veterans from America’s endless wars, and poverty-stricken children; we see it through Lucy’s eyes. Lucy was able to move out of that world and into New York’s cultural elite, but she seems to have also left behind her ability to see. In Oh William! Strout is an outsider looking in, more interested in writing the liberal upper middle-class milieu and how they view poverty (always with kindly eyes, with some compassion, but also with horror and disgust). ‘Trash culture’ and the people in it are evoked only to follow some people’s ability to move up and out of it.
In My Name is Lucy Barton this tendency was less apparent, because most of Lucy’s perspective was looking back at her childhood and background through the prism of her relationship with her mother and family. It elegantly showed the ways in which material reality and relationships are inextricably entwined, such that how we love cannot be separated from the material conditions we find ourselves in. The book was infused with Lucy’s longing to leave where she came from for all sorts of reasons, something that very strongly resonated with me. I struggle to relate to this Lucy in Oh William! I struggle to identify with Lucy’s gratefulness for having come up in the world, in particular her gratefulness to the wealthy; and with a book that comes across as aspirational.
And that is perhaps the most troubling aspect of this novel – its valuing of social mobility, its inadvertent reinforcement of it, and so, despite appearances, its essentially conservative outlook. It is liberalism in novel form: acknowledging the shortcomings and tensions inherent in class mobility, but ultimately never fundamentally questioning it. Yes, I used the words conservative and liberal next to each other, but in the spirit of Strout’s expansive writing where two things can be true at once, in their essence, I think they converge. Both conservatism and liberalism aim to maintain the status quo, and what could be more supportive of the status quo than a belief in upward mobility?
If I was being ungenerous, I would say Oh William! is writing about the poor for comfortable people who nevertheless are aware that there are others who live very different lives to them, and who want to feel like they are open to and interested in these others’ lives. Strout is always warm and empathetic towards her lower-class characters. But her real preoccupation is with those who have successfully moved up. She is concerned with documenting social mobility, which is to say, that she is interested in the American Dream.
In Strout’s novels, she is aware and astute about the dilemmas and tensions of upward mobility; she writes them very well, especially in characters like Lucy Barton. However, despite expressing reservations and showing its grey areas, Oh William! essentially underlines and reinforces the appeal of the American Dream; which is to say, though the novel acknowledges is not within the reach of everyone, it is ultimately good.
Some of us make it, the book seems to be saying. And in the end, we might even be grateful, like Lucy is to William:
It is as though William ushered me into the world. I mean as much as I could be ushered. He did that for me. And Catherine did too.
Despite my own upward mobility, I can’t get behind this vision that social mobility is a fundamental good, least of all because it is not within reach of the majority. Most of all though, I baulk at the suggestion that the new world Lucy gains access to is superior to the one she left behind, not only materially, but morally.
There was a sad end to my mother’s cancer diagnosis – we didn’t win the battle and she died six months later. When I look back on her life, on our family’s life, I see that we were the migrant story aiming for the Australian Dream, my parents working their bones off trying to move upwards. And anyone who has tried to achieve it, tried to live it, knows its cost. It is hard, then, to read Oh William! and not feel like it is an insufficient nod to the insufficiency of the American Dream, that it fails to recognise the moral bankruptcy of wealthy liberals and the way they live, and by default, ends up reassuring the comfortable that they don’t need to feel too guilty because social mobility exists for the poor; instead of highlighting that if some people have less or not enough it is because others have taken too much.