Oh William! is the third book in the Lucy Barton series by Elizabeth Strout, and how it got its title is a little story in itself. When My Name Is Lucy Barton, the very first Lucy Barton book, was about to be staged in New York, Strout was observing the gifted actor Laura Linney – who was playing the lead – in her rehearsal space.
In her interview with The Guardian, Strout had revealed how Linney “pushed her spectacles on to the top of her head and started to murmur something about her character’s ex-husband – William”. Strout overheard her and uttered the words, “Oh William!” Thus, giving birth to this little gem which went on to get shortlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize, because “William deserved a story of his own”.
Dear readers, OH WILLIAM! is a nominee for Best Fiction in @goodreads Choice Awards. I'm honored and excited to find it there. (If the award was for the cover alone, it would be no contest, I think.) Please vote in the opening round, open through 11/28!https://t.co/x4DMHhVXwW pic.twitter.com/bAzX5g9fWH— Elizabeth Strout (@LizStrout) November 19, 2021
William, an aging parasitologist, as already mentioned, is the ex-husband of successful author Lucy Barton – whose brutal early years spent in abject poverty one can read about in the earlier books. But this novel stands firmly on its feet alone without making the reader feel the weight of its predecessors. Lucy walked out on William when she learnt he has been unfaithful to her, and in this novel, we meet William in a visibly distraught state years later when his third and most recent wife too has just left him, while he tries to reconnect with Lucy – although not in a romantic capacity.
But to his dismay and surprise, when William is gifted a genealogy website subscription on his birthday, he discovers that his mother had also abandoned a daughter in her youth before marrying his father. William soon unravels, so Lucy joins him on a trip to Maine in order to find out more about William’s half-sister.
We go back and forth in time as Strout examines marriages, friendships, infidelities, loneliness, and grief using Barton as a crutch. Her prose is constructed out of such simple yet delicate phrases and dialogues that it stings more deeply because you and I have both used or heard these lines in some form or another in our own lives.
About halfway through her novel Strout writes, “As we drove I suddenly had a visceral memory of what a hideous thing marriage was for me at times those years with William.” After William’s third wife moves out suddenly – Lucy finds him sitting on the floor in a rumpled shirt and dirty jeans with no shoes on with much of the furniture gone, and Strout compares the scene with a burglary – William’s and Lucy’s daughters plan a dinner together at his home to reassure him.
When Lucy walks in she finds him looking better too, but when he bends down to kiss her cheek, he gives a sigh and squeezes her arm. And Lucy understands that very second, he was only doing it for the girls.
It’s a moment of privacy I have come back with after reading this novel which will stay with me even years later, because that’s what Oh William! does – it reminds us of unspoken intimacies that can survive between two people even if their relationship does not.