Oh William! Oh Lucy! Oh marriage! Oh life! Oh god!
Elizabeth Strout’s 2022 Booker Prize shortlisted novel Oh William! makes you want to gulp it down – you really do not want to waste any time or linger with the book for long. The protagonist of the novel, Lucy Barton, is not unfamiliar to the steadfast readers of Strout’s – this is her third appearance since the eponymous 2016 novel My Name is Lucy Barton and 2017 novel Anything is Possible.
While the prequels (of sorts) were a deep dive into Lucy’s formative years and early adulthood, Oh William! finds her as an elderly woman in her 60s – divorced from her first husband William, widowed after the death of her second husband David, mother of two adult daughters, famous author of several novels, and still coming to terms with her unhappy childhood.
As she journeys through life, Lucy cannot really wipe herself clean of her past. The novel begins in motion – The ‘William’ in the title is Lucy’s first husband, William Gerhardt, a 71-year-old man who is in the pink of health and still enjoys a career as a scientist and a professor. Though they have been divorced for many years, William confides in Lucy about something that has been literally keeping him up at night – he has been having night terrors that are made worse by the fact that the sight of his mother in them unsettles him so.
His much younger third wife has left him without saying goodbye and has taken their teenage daughter along with her, his German ancestry comes back to haunt him, and now there’s a possibility of his having an older half-sister whom his mother had abandoned when she was only a one-year-old baby. William, at a time in his life that is so fraught with worry, turns to Lucy and tells her frankly that he thinks of her to comfort himself.
This is an odd thing to say to a former spouse, especially who at present is twice removed by subsequent marriages. The ease with which Strout launches into the story of Lucy and William would have you think that they are long-lost lovers and maybe their marriage had died a natural death – that’s far from the truth. As Lucy recollects her life with William, she hesitantly reveals how he had been repeatedly unfaithful to her. She earnestly reminds him that she had left him of ‘free will’ and William, with a tinge of meanness, asks her if it indeed was free will – was she not forced to walk out because he could not be true to her? And so it goes.
The bones and bareness of marriage
Strout has written about marriage – the bones and bareness of it. I’m not married and I have never been married, I do not know the first thing about marriage, and yet here I am writing about a book on marriage. That’s what Strout has done – written a book so universal in its appeal that it reaches into the trenches of your being and fingers something that is really raw and vulnerable. In a way, we are more alike in heartbreak than we are in joy. Grief can indeed be a great equaliser – do we not find it easier to comfort someone through sadness than make sense of someone’s happiness?
As Lucy remembers her marriage with William from all those years ago while lending him a comforting shoulder in the present, we come to terms with our own experiences of love and loss. Imagine a lover, or even a friend, with whom you had shared so much of your life until a day comes when their very presence fills you with loneliness, a certain sense of dread. Strout sums up this eventuality in two heartbreaking sentences – “William is the only person I ever felt safe with. He is the only home I ever had”, and nearly 60 pages later, she writes, “I wondered who William was. I have wondered this before. Many times I have wondered this.” Oh, to realise this about someone whom you had once deeply loved!
“We had these surprises and disappointments with each other,” Lucy says as she continues to walk down the memory lane. Then with a sudden unrestrained honesty, she declares, “At times in our marriage I loathed him.” Like I said, I know nothing about being married, yet I teared up when I read this – “I suddenly had a visceral memory of what a hideous thing marriage was for me at times those years with William: a familiarity so dense it filled up the room. . .Intimacy became a ghastly thing.”
Is this not true of most long-term relationships, especially marriages, where you are forced into intense proximity with someone for years on end? There’s perhaps only very few things that render us as helpless as our expectations, and Oh William! meditates on that from the perspective of marital companionship.
Catherine, William’ mother, whom Lucy loves dearly and who ends up becoming a looming shadow over their relationship also played a part in their unhappiness. Parents have a way of doing that, even the most well-intentioned of them, don’t they? Lucy recalls being joined by her mother-in-law on their vacations, wearing outfits picked by her, being forced to play golf because her husband’s mother thought highly of it, and most importantly, being subtly chastised about her impoverished childhood leaves an indelible stain on her. She does not realise why Catherine acts the way she does – until a trip she takes many years later with William in the hope of uncovering his mother’s own childhood and past marriages.
To love is to lose
Strout paints a complete picture of a family – one that is coloured by desires, fears, deceptions, and disappointments. Wasn’t William quite right to mock Lucy for claiming to exercise ‘free will’? Aren’t we all bound by family, our childhood and its hurt, our futile attempts to ‘correct’ what we might be lacking – don’t we trudge through life with these burdens weighing heavy on our shoulders and our hearts?
And why do we love those we love? What compels us to want to want to be with them, share their defeats and triumphs, to have our one precious life so caught up with theirs? “What is it that William knew about me and that I knew about him that caused us to get married?” Lucy does not have an answer to this. Neither does Strout. And nor do we.
But what remains is this – unthinkingly we seek what we are familiar with. William, despite never knowing his mother’s roots or even the truth of his father’s identity, remains entwined with them many years after losing them both. In a moment of painful clarity, where Lucy realises she’s in charge, she breaks it to him, “William, you married your mother.”
I would say neither William nor Lucy are Strout’s key characters – instead, it’s the constant conflict that the two of them feel between their inner selves and the outer world. These are old people – a man and woman who have been worn down with age and experience. There’s no way to shed off your skin and inhabit a new body. Oh William! does not recommend that.
What it rather seems to suggest – and pleads with us to accept – is that we are all creatures of mystery. There are parts of us that belong solely to us and the same is true for those with whom we might share ‘ghastly intimacies’. Strout puts it neatly in as many words as she writes – “This is the way of life: the many things we do not know until it is too late.”
“But then I think Oh William!, don’t I mean Oh Lucy! too? Don’t I mean Oh Everyone, Oh dear Everybody in this whole wide world, we do not know anybody, not even ourselves!” Very rarely do I find myself choking up with emotion when I read. I was pleasantly surprised when I wept and wept on finishing this book.
Strout has woven an intricate, moving, and heartachingly sad tapestry about our rich inner lives. Oh William! feels like a dear friend who tells us, oh so gently, that to love is to lose and yet. . .and yet, there can be no meaning to life without love and its many disappointments, betrayals, and loss.
Oh William!, Elizabeth Strout, Penguin Random House.