Discussion, Review of Elizabeth Strout and OH WILLIAM!

In her latest novel, OH WILLIAM!–Lucy Barton, the main character and voice in the novel, tells us that when she learns William had been having an affair with her friend, “a tulip stem inside me snapped. It has stayed snapped, it never grew back.” 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Elizabeth Strout hated being a lawyer: “I couldn’t stand up for anybody, even when I believed in their case.” After six months, she left to do the adjunct professor thing in Manhattan, teaching literature—writing. Strout has admitted that there’s nothing romantic about being rejected, but she never gave up. “I often had only two hours every three days to work; I had to make the most of it.”

She succeeded, using her early life in Maine to create Amy and Isabel, Abide with Me and then Olive Kitteridge, her Pulitzer Prize winning collection of stories about a cantankerous wife, mother and former teacher. Example: Olive’s only child, Christopher, has just married Suzanne. Olive leaves the party, goes into the married couple’s bedroom…she crosses the pine floor, gleaming in the sunshine, and lies down on Christopher’s (and Suzanne’s) queen-size bed. …It pleases her to think of the piece of blueberry cake she managed to slip into her big leather handbag—how she can go home soon and eat it in peace, take off this panty girdle, get things back to normal.

…Then later, Olive sees the bride’s favorite pair of loafers. She takes one, smashing it into her purse with the blueberry cake. That’s Olive.

In Olive Again, 2019, Strout deals with Olive’s second marriage, her son’s divorce, her need to move to the Maple Tree Apartments. There she meets characters who have appeared in Strout’s work: Amy and Isabelle, The Burgess Boys. This expansion of the lives of former characters reinforces Strout’s oeuvre and the world she’s created. Toward the end of Olive Again….her mind twirling around, Olive suddenly remembered catching grasshoppers as a child, putting them in a jar with the top on, her father had said, ‘Let them out, Ollie, they’ll die.’

Her next, My Name Is Lucy Barton, allowed Strout to explore new artistic territory by creating Lucy, a writer with a background, a life experience worth exploring, exposing. Strout followed with a collection of stories, Anything Is Possible and now with Oh William! — Strout the writer, Lucy Barton her muse. 

In MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON, Lucy is hospitalized for complications from appendicitis. Away from her children and husband, she awakens to find her mother sitting in the hospital room. There is little positive history to connect these two, but the mother has traveled from Amgash, Illinois, a fictional small town Strout created where people cling to the land, seeking comfort in the narrowness of what they know. The mother’s arrival gives rise to Lucy’s childhood pain: her father locking Lucy in a truck with a snake; the tiny cold house; Lucy staying late at school where she could study, be warm, meet the gentle teacher who believes in Lucy, helps her escape Amgash, attend college where she begins to write about her life, where she meets and falls in love with William!

As she wrote the story collection, ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE, I envision Strout with piles of notes (her process, see previous post) while laboring over themes and visual details to create characters that might have walked the streets of poorer towns, maybe even those in her beloved Maine. In her story SISTER, Lucy has finally returned to Amgash to visit her sister and brother.

Lucy moved close to her sister, she rubbed her knee. “Oh, that’s disgusting. You are not icky, Vicky, you’re–”   “I am so icky, Lucy. Just look at me.” Tears keep coming from Vicky’s eyes. They rolled down over her mouth, with its lipstick.   “You know what?” Lucy said. She stopped rubbing Vicky’s knee and started patting it instead. “Cry away. Honey, just cry your eyes out, it’s okay. My God, do you remember how we were never supposed to cry?”

Strout left a thread in MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON, Lucy’s father, a WWII vet, won’t accept Lucy’s marriage to William, whose heritage is German. Now in OH WILLIAM! Strout explores that thread.

LUCY’S HISTORY…

Lucy married William, they lived in New York City, had two daughters, then later divorced. In Oh, WilliamLucy’s second husband, David, has recently died, her  daughters are grown. William has had women, but finds himself lonely. When he asks Lucy to go on a trip with him, help him search for a half-sister he has newly discovered on an ancestry website, Lucy questions her current role, but then agrees. The book is a trip of remembrance, of adaptation that all couples experience. Memories of their lives, their daughters lives past and present are shared. They talk about Catherine, William’s deceased mother, questioning how this step-sister might exist. The trip revives memories, Catherine putting William in a nursery school. “I’d cry every day at that place…Lucy, I would cry–the kids would circle around me at recess and they’d sing, ‘Crybaby, crybaby.'”
Lucy listens, silently questions how William will react if they actually find this woman, this half-sister.  

With MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON and now OH WILLIAM! Strout has mastered a clipped, direct style, scenes that flow into one another, revealing a character’s thoughts, ordinary, maybe even simple, but always revelatory….he was wearing the khakis that were too short and I had the same reaction I’d had when I first saw him wearing them at the airport the day before, but I was tired from my night and I did not feel it as strongly. 

so often I had the private image of William and me as Hansel and Gretel, two small kids lost in the woods looking for breadcrumbs that could lead us home. …that the only home I ever had was with William…I’m not sure why this is true, but it is. …being with Hansel–even if we were lost in the woods–made me feel safe.              I wrote in the margin, YES! Strout relates a character’s thoughts, questions, pains, and the questioning we all have about our closest relationships. 

I was in rural Maine and what had just come to me was an understanding, I think that is the only way I can put it, of these people in their houses, these houses we passed by. It was an odd thing, but it was real, for a few moments I felt this: that I understood where I was…that I loved the people we did not see who inhabited the few houses and who had their trucks in front of these houses. This is what I almost felt. This is what I felt. 

Again, we check in on our feelings as they flow through us, pinning them down as we question and then say YES.

Every reader comes to a novel with their own past, their own anxieties, beliefs and a view of the world. Getting lost in story can be pleasing, but it can also arouse questions. Reading Elizabeth Strout is a journey. It provides a look at the reality of lives, not always pleasant, not always redeeming. Her characters are flawed, as we all are. But people change and grow. Strout has penetrated those changes in her work. Maybe that is why she again finds her characters gathered on her table of messy notes, waving conjoling, encouraging her to write more about them. I hope she does.  

When Elizabeth Strout Critiqued My Pages

Elizabeth Strout, How She Came to Be A Favorite Author: Part One

An author from Maine, now living and working in New York City, Elizabeth Strout published her debut novel, Amy and Isabelle, in 1998. The basic storyline echoed some unfortunate headlines, examining, “the close relationship between Isabelle and her teenage daughter Amy, how their relationship comes to be strained after Amy is groomed by her much older math teacher.”

A reviewer in the New York Times summarized the new writer’s talent: “…the story’s true drama lies in the palpable, intricate way it examines the ‘scrape of longing’ that drives these characters toward human contact, leaving them raw and bleeding yet also more fully alive.”

I read her debut, then her second novel, Abide with Me, (2006) summarized as: a religious leader, struggling with the death of his wife, in a small New England town, in the 1950s. Still New England, but Strout flexing her writing muscle, wowing some of the reviewers while finding her way. She would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature on March 25, 2008, for creating the amazing character who appears in a collection of short fiction: OLIVE KITTERIDGE. Now with no place to go but up, Strout published THE BURGESS BOYS in 2013, a novel with Maine roots that takes place in New York City.

I GET TO MEET HER

In the summer of 2006, I did what had become a delightful summer habit, I would attend a writing workshop at the University of Iowa, in Iowa City. The catalogue listed Elizabeth Strout, offering a weekend course on writing THE NOVEL. I signed up.

What kind of a teacher was this future Pulitzer Prize winner that auspicious weekend? Well, nervous, apologizing that this was a new experience for her—but talking about her passion, which of course is writing.

She spent the first day explaining how she’d come to be a fiction writer. I don’t think attendees, myself included, found this very helpful or exciting—but looking back, Elizabeth was truly sharing the nuts and bolts of her writing process, encouraging those of us who might also be experiencing an unusual start, a bumpy start.  

Married to her first husband at the time, Strout mentioned that her in-laws didn’t understand why her dining room and a room in her basement were littered with scarps of paper, quick ideas that she jotted down, pages and pages, most-often written in long-hand and not always placed in organized piles. (Strout later taught herself how to compose at the computer) but I understood that moments of creation often come through the fingers, and at the time, longhand was her process. Though I don’t want to bore you with these details, as a struggling writer, I found it all fascinating.

MY LITTLE GIFT & HER ANALYSIS

Before that weekend, I’d found a furniture advertisement in a women’s magazine, the usual, except that the table had a neat pile of books and Strout’s AMY & ISABEL was prominently displayed. I brought the page with me, clipped it to my homework assignment.

Elizabeth had asked us to provide one chapter from our work-in-progress. I was working on my second novel, THE MOON DOCTOR, (still unpublished) about a burn victim who finds his traumatic experience has given him the power to heal others–without the need for medical school. 

Strout read ten pages from a chapter in the middle of the book. Her final comment:

There’s a lot going on here, and it’s very intriguing. It seems you have quite an interesting plot at work here, and some very good details. I think you might work on making sure every sentence is direct and ‘true.’ We will talk more about this in workshop and conference. (Thanks for enclosing the cover of the brochure displaying my book. That was very thoughtful of you.) Elizabeth Strout.

For interested fellow writers, she underlined phrases, stating that they WEAKENED my presentation. Her message: these sentences were not true to my voice.

Example: All of these thoughts skittered around the encumbrance of his physical body.  YES, I agree, a truly horrible sentence.

He slowly removed the IV catheter from Jolene’s arm. He’d forgotten a 4by4 and instead watched a snake of dark blood pool down onto the bed linen. Strout wrote: good use of detail.

Was Strout a great teacher? No. I know she’d be so much better now, as I have listened to her interviews, she being more assured, eager to share her writing process, because she has succeeded, truly succeeded. And her life has radically changed, her fourth novel, MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON, performed on Broadway, the dialogue spoken by Laura Linney.  

A FEW MORE WORDS ABOUT ELIZABETH STROUT…so next week, I will review Strout’s recent novel, OH, WILLIAM! when Strout is once again in the world of Lucy Barton, the main character of MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON and her collection of short stories, ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE.

Thanks for reading. 

 

WHY I READ…STORY

WHY I READ...STORY

The world opened up for me on the couch on the southside of Chicago when my mother handed me a book. I’ve been reading ever since–weekly trips to the library, gift books, and now an audio book ALWAYS in my car, so that I am listening on my way to the grocery store etc.

When my mother was dying in Chicago and I was living in Iowa, I consumed books in my car. I also try to read every night for two hours–if I can stay awake. I read books and print material–I read a real newspaper every day, the LA TIMES. I taught reading and literature as an English teacher. I read huge tomes studying to be an RN. I read struggling authors as a proofreader. What would my world be if I could not read?

STORY

We all have one. Some of us like to remember various parts of our story, some people actually can have mental health problems as they grow, because they are working so hard to suppress their story. But we all have one that either lights our days or shadows them.

Right now in one of my book clubs, we are reading Elizabeth Strout’s MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON. Strout is a pulitzer prize author and I’ve read all of her books. She writes fiction, allows herself to travel into the minds of her characters. She says profoundly:

I’m interested in ordinary people and what their inner lives are like. Since I was a young child, I have been aware that inside every person is a universe, and that we’ll never know what it feels like to be another person. Which is horrifying. 

Yes, it is. How can we marry, raise children, move them out into the world not truly knowing what it feels like to be them. How can we praise another or dismiss another, not truly knowing what it means to be that person. DO WE TRULY GIVE A DAMN?

I hope so. Reading and writing is about immersing oneself in other lives. Someone recently questioned me about MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON. Comment: it’s so depressing? Why are we reading it?

Why are we walking this earth and having children and/or making friends, living? Strout’s book reveals LIVES. You read STORY, that life comes alive on the page. So my answer to this questions will always be: EMPATHY. We read story to get into the cells and bloodstreams of other’s lives, to understand their joys and pains. Depressing? Yes, sometimes. Joyful, yes, other times. But here’s the thing–in Strout’s book the joy is subtle, just as it is in real life. Lucy Barton tells about a grade school teacher, Mr. Haley, who taught her about the Indians.

“Until then, I hadn’t known that we took their land from them with a deception that caused Black Hawk to rebel. I didn’t know that the whites gave them whiskey, that the whites killed their women in the cornfields. I felt that I loved Black Hawk as I did Mr. Haley, that these were brave and wonderful men, and I could not believe how Black Hawk was taken on a tour of cities after his capture.” 

With those lines you can just see Strout recalling a personal experience, yet putting it into the life of her fictional character, Lucy, yet revealing how OUR LIVES ARE OPENED UP when we learn things in school–when our horizons grow and change.

Later, Lucy says to her mother, “Mommy, do you know what we did to the Indians?” And her mother, out of the angst of her own down-trodden life, replies, “I don’t give a damn what we did to the Indians.”

In my own life there was Anna, who cleaned for us, whose age I could never determine, whose body was permanently bent from work, who chewed tobacco, told me she had a picture of Abraham Lincoln in her apartment and once told us about a relative who had been a slave. This is a true American story. And yes, knowing Anna set my life in a direction…what, how, how much? At least a beginning. All of our lives are beginnings and they can form us IF we let STORY in–if we listen, if we cry and ask for more.

THE LOST ART OF READING  

In a recent article, David Ulin writes about the importance of story and our disrupted narrative in the United States. “On the one hand, America has always been a racist country. On the other, that has never before been rendered as acceptable. No, we are now in the midst of a broken story, and we have lost the ability to parse its lines.”

He goes on: “Stories, I’ve long believed, are connective, the only tool we have to reach out of our isolation, regardless of how fleetingly. This is as close as I get to faith, this notion that narrative can save us, even (or especially) if we cannot, finally, be saved.”

(If you do read the Bible, there are many stories about THE OTHER, but the purpose of the Bible is to bring the reader to Christ, and Christ never rejects THE OTHER.)

Olin writes about the 1980s, when he took a repetitive drive through Barstow CA to LA. He writes: “For hundreds of miles, radio gave up only farm reports and God talk…and when I stopped to eat or sleep or fill the tank, I was never unaware that I was a stranger in a strange land. ‘You a Jew, boy?’ someone once asked…and though he wasn’t exactly threatening (more curious I want to tell you), there was a moment when I wasn’t sure how to respond. (Earlier in this piece, Ulin writes: how could I believe racism has been vanquished when according to the Guardian Newspaper, African American men between 15 and 34 were nine times more likely to be killed by police in 2016 than other Americans.”

Ulin then quotes Maxine Hong Kingston from her book “The Woman Warrior”: “A story can take you through a whole process of searching, seeking, confronting, through conflicts, and then to a resolution.” YES, that’s what we need more and more.To get to that resolution.

But then Ulin quotes Ernest Hemingway: “All stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and there is no true storyteller who would keep that from you.” True–yet as Ulin reminds us, “most stories don’t continue far enough, which means we have no choice but to engage with them as part of a continuum.” Yes, WELCOME TO TODAY! Welcome to becoming part of another’s story through listening, though a handshake, through volunteering or sending a check.

And finally, In MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON, Strout has Lucy meet and learn from a writing teacher, Sarah Payne. Payne tells Lucy: “If you find yourself protecting anyone as you write this piece, remember this: You’re not doing it right.”

WHAT TO TAKE FROM ALL OF THIS  

I am going to go with David Ulin’s conclusion, because it says it much better than I could.

This is how the world works: first we tell ourselves a story, then we dream our way inside it as a way of bringing it to life. It’s why we have to be careful about the narratives we evoke or create, because they are bound by the limits of what we can imagine, the limits of our ability to think. The reason books and reading remain essential is because they are still the most effective mechanisms by which to crack open the universe. Think about it: when we read, we soul travel, in the sense that we join, or enter the consciousness of another human. We EMPATHIZE–we have to–because our experience is enlarged.

photo credit: Jasu Hu THE NEW YORK TIMES.