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 married William, they lived in New York City, had two daughters, then later divorced. In Oh, William! Lucy’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.