Book Review of Elizabeth Strout's Oh William!
I’ve read a few enjoyable and comforting reads in recent weeks, but Elizabeth Strout’s Oh William! is the first book I’ve picked up, in absolutely ages, that I struggled to put down. I read it in two sittings.
The strength of Elizabeth Strout’s Oh William! is the connection that the reader makes to Lucy Barton the narrator. She tells the story in first person and focuses on the minutiae of life, which she uses to explore big life questions. The effect that an individual’s childhood has on their present and future self is never far from the surface of the book.
In Elizabeth Strout’s Oh William!, Lucy’s second husband has recently died. She finds herself spending time with her first husband, William, and she and he go on an actual and metaphorical journey of reflection. William’s own life is unravelling as his third marriage disintegrates. Lucy and he discover hidden family secrets that create insight and provide them with greater understanding of who they are and why they are as they are. We learn a lot about William’s mother, Catherine and through that see the complexity of son/mother relationships. I’m sure if this were a high school text it would be worth analyzing from a Freudian stance.
Oh William! Is a book that focuses hugely on connection. The narrator’s own self-awareness of time passing, the significance of perception and her ability to pinpoint precise emotion is incredible. There is absolutely nothing twee or sentimental in the writing, though it is nostalgic, particularly in relation to their shared grown up children. The sophistication, yet simplicity of the writing in Elizabeth Strout’s Oh William! makes it an utter joy to read.
Book Discussion Questions for Elizabeth Strout's Oh William!
Book Club Questions on Elizabeth Strout's Oh William! (If you haven't read the book).
Personal Response to Elizabeth Strout's Oh William!
The phrase Oh William! made me think of a different book Oh David! by David Shannon. It is a text I used to read to Key Stage 1 children when I worked as a librarian. Oh David! features a little boy who does a series of naughty acts from knocking over a vase to running down the street naked. Despite all his misdemeanors his mum loves him anyway.
This is, I think, kind of how Lucy feels about William. In life we make mistakes, we don’t understand why people act the way they do, we put faith in individuals when perhaps it isn’t deserved and we can’t ever really understand or explain why we do the things we do.
As Lucy observes the actions of her first husband she frequently says Oh William! This sums up the emotions she feels toward him, without perhaps having to overtly articulate or fully understand them. We are all a bundle of complex and contradictory emotions, which leave us baffled, yet alive!