Oh William!: A Novel - book cover
  • Publisher : Random House
  • Published : 19 Oct 2021
  • Pages : 256
  • ISBN-10 : 0812989430
  • ISBN-13 : 9780812989434
  • Language : English

Oh William!: A Novel

Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout explores the mysteries of marriage and the secrets we keep, as a former couple reckons with where they’ve come from—and what they’ve left behind. 

“Elizabeth Strout is one of my very favorite writers, so the fact that Oh William! may well be my favorite of her books is a mathematical equation for joy. The depth, complexity, and love contained in these pages is a miraculous achievement.”—Ann Patchett, author of The Dutch House

I would like to say a few things about my first husband, William. 

Lucy Barton is a writer, but her ex-husband, William, remains a hard man to read. William, she confesses, has always been a mystery to me. Another mystery is why the two have remained connected after all these years. They just are. 

So Lucy is both surprised and not surprised when William asks her to join him on a trip to investigate a recently uncovered family secret—one of those secrets that rearrange everything we think we know about the people closest to us. What happens next is nothing less than another example of what Hilary Mantel has called Elizabeth Strout’s “perfect attunement to the human condition.” There are fears and insecurities, simple joys and acts of tenderness, and revelations about affairs and other spouses, parents and their children. On every page of this exquisite novel we learn more about the quiet forces that hold us together—even after we’ve grown apart. 

At the heart of this story is the indomitable voice of Lucy Barton, who offers a profound, lasting reflection on the very nature of existence. “This is the way of life,” Lucy says: “the many things we do not know until it is too late.”

Editorial Reviews

Praise for Oh William!

"Loneliness and betrayal, themes to which the Pulitzer Prize–winning Strout has returned throughout her career, are ever present in this illuminating character-driven saga. . . . Strout's characters teem with angst and emotion, all of which [she] handles with a mastery of restraint and often in spare, true sentences. . . . It's not for nothing that Strout has been compared to Hemingway. In some ways, she betters him."-Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Praise for Elizabeth Strout

"[Strout] illuminates both what people understand about others and what they understand about themselves."-The New York Times Book Review 

"Strout managed to make me love this strange woman I'd never met, who I knew nothing about. What a terrific writer she is."-Zadie Smith 

"Strout animates the ordinary with an astonishing force. . . . [She] makes us experience not only the terrors of change but also the terrifying hope that change can bring: she plunges us into these churning waters and we come up gasping for air."-The New Yorker 

"Writing of this quality comes from a commitment to listening, from a perfect attunement to the human condition, from an attention to reality so exact that it goes beyond a skill and becomes a virtue."-Hilary Mantel

"Reading an Elizabeth Strout novel is like peering into your neighbor's windows. . . . There is a nuanced tension in the novel, evoked by beautiful and detailed writing. Strout's manifestations of envy, pride, guilt, selflessness, bigotry and love are subtle and spot-on."-Minneapolis Star Tribune 

"Strout is a brilliant chronicler of the ambiguity and delicacy of the human condition."-The Guardian

Readers Top Reviews

Claudia Templeton
Elizabeth Strout can really write and her stories are incredibly sensitive and kind. What a feat to do all that and make it interesting as well. No words.
Margaret McPhail
As with all her books it was well worth the wait, which begins when the previous one was finished. If you’ve never read any, then you should, I envy you having them all to come. Just beautiful.
J. RooseLinda Frankl
I am a huge fan of Elizabeth Stout and have loved all of her previous books. This one, though, disappointed me. At about 80% through it, I wondered if I would finish, I did not like Lucy nor care what happened to her. I was even less interested in William, as a serial cheater. Their daughters were more interesting but they played a small part in this narrative. I would not recommend this book but rather suggest a reader pick any of her previous books, which I loved.
David Keymer
If you read Strout’s earlier novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton, you’ve already met the narrator of this luminous, human and wise novel. She’s a writer, famous now but awful things happened to her when she was young and she’s never fully learned to live in the much richer world that now is hers. Her own mother was awful, exceeded in meanness only by her predator father. In compensation, she’s crafted a fantasy mother, who exists only in side her and surfaces when she’s feeling way too bad and needs comfort –the kind of comfort her own family never gave her. Things happen in this novel but there is no great drama-laden narrative arc. It’s an arc instead of small epiphanic moments of revealing, Lucy feeling or realizing something and then shrinking away from it or moving on to other thoughts and feelings. If the novel is “about” anything, it’s “about” her continuing involvement with her first husband William, now ex and at the start of the novel married to his third wife but by the end she has shed him, and that’s part of what the story is about: William’s bits and pieces adjustment for the third time to having and losing a spouse who no longer wanted him. (Lucy was the first to leave him. She felt strangled with him but once away from him, she has settled into an almost comfortable –well, often comfortable but not always and not deeply—relationship with him. They were partners in raising their two daughters (who took Lucy’s abandonment badly but are now reconciled with her) and now they are helpmates of sorts, more when William needs help than Lucy but they still know each other in ways they know nobody else. Before she left him, William’s third wife Estelle had given him a subscription to an online service that found out for you who your ancestors were. When he’d searched, he discovered that his mother had had a daughter two years before he was born but she’d given the child up for adoption before she married William’s father. He’s upset. His wife has just left him with their teenage daughter, he’s found out that his mother had lied to him (at least, hidden the truth) and he has a half-sister he’s never known and who now is in her early seventies. In addition, he’s having trouble in his work: an epidemiologist, he’s never quite met the standards he set for himself and now he thinks he’s run out of steam. It takes a while but he finally decides to find out what his half-sister is like –she lives in Maine—he doesn’t know if he wants to meet her but he needs to know more about her. He asks Lucy to go with him on his journey of exploration. Nothing earthshaking happens on the trip. They travel through near-abandoned Maine towns, have mildly unpleasant experiences eating and lodging along the way. Lucy, but not William, talks to William’s half-sister, who does not want to meet him. William, who has always closed down communication ...
Oh, Lucy Barton! My favorite of Elizabeth Strout’s characters. It seems she speaks for all of us, she is not all knowing, but she uses her critical thinking skills and figures out what needs to be done. And, by golly, it is done and reported. A time to think, and we have a focus and understanding. William is Lucy’s first husband. They had two girls that they love dearly. However, Lucy never felt comfortable in this marriage, and she told us this, previously. Lucy came from a poor and abusive household, and since she has written that story, that is where you will find it, elsewhere. During this story line, we learn about the marriage to William, delve into the why’s and wherefores, and whatnots. This should suffice. William has been married three times, and Lucy can dissect this time. What we have is a better understanding of life, marriage, therapy, and the process of coming and going and leaving and our thinking process. What we gloss over, what we leave behind, and the critical thinking process of our lives. Lucy Barton is the narrator and what she knows will leave us all better people. Recommended. prisrob 10-19-2021

Short Excerpt Teaser

I would like to say a few things about my first husband, William.

William has lately been through some very sad events-many of us have-but I would like to mention them, it feels almost a compulsion; he is seventy-one years old now.

My second husband, David, died last year, and in my grief for him I have felt grief for William as well. Grief is such a-oh, it is such a solitary thing; this is the terror of it, I think. It is like sliding down the outside of a really long glass building while nobody sees you.

But it is William I want to speak of here.

His name is William Gerhardt, and when we married I took his last name, even though at the time it was not fashionable to do so. My college roommate said, "Lucy, you're taking his name? I thought you were a feminist." And I told her that I did not care about being a feminist; I told her I did not want to be me anymore. At that time I felt that I was tired of being me, I had spent my whole life not wanting to be me-this is what I thought then-and so I took his name and became Lucy Gerhardt for eleven years, but it did not ever feel right to me, and almost immediately after William's mother died I went to the motor vehicle place to get my own name back on my driver's license, even though it was more difficult than I had thought it would be; I had to go back and bring in some court documents; but I did.

I became Lucy Barton again.

We were married for almost twenty years before I left him and we have two daughters, and we have been friendly for a long time now-how, I am not sure exactly. There are many terrible stories of divorce, but except for the separation itself ours is not one of them. Sometimes I thought I would die from the pain of our separating, and the pain it caused my girls, but I did not die, and I am here, and so is William.

Because I am a novelist, I have to write this almost like a novel, but it is true-as true as I can make it. And I want to say-oh, it is difficult to know what to say! But when I report something about William it is because he told it to me or because I saw it with my own eyes.

So I will start this story when William was sixty-nine years old, which is less than two years ago now.

A visual:

Recently William's lab assistant had taken to calling William "Einstein," and William seemed to get a real kick out of that. I do not think William looks like Einstein at all, but I take the young woman's point. William has a very full mustache with gray in its whiteness, but it is sort of a trimmed mustache and his hair is full and white. It is cut, but it does stick out from his head. He is a tall man, and he dresses very well. And he does not have that vaguely crazy look that Einstein, to my mind, seemed to have. William's face is often closed with an unyielding pleasantness, except for once in a very great while when he throws his head back in real laughter; I have not seen him do that for a long time. His eyes are brown and they have stayed large; not everyone's eyes stay large as they get older, but William's eyes have.


Every morning William would rise in his spacious apartment on Riverside Drive. Picture him-throwing aside the fluffy quilt with its dark blue cotton cover, his wife still asleep in their king-size bed, and going into the bathroom. He would, every morning, be stiff. But he had exercises and he did them, going out into the living room, lying on his back on the large black-and-red rug with the antique chandelier above him, pedaling his legs in the air as though on a bicycle, then stretching them this way and that. Then he'd move to the large maroon chair by the window that looked out over the Hudson River, and he would read the news on his laptop there. At some point Estelle would emerge from the bedroom and wave to him sleepily and then she would wake their daughter, Bridget, who was ten, and after William took his shower the three of them had breakfast in the kitchen at the round table; William enjoyed the routine of this, and his daughter was a chatty girl, which he liked as well; it was as though listening to a bird, he once said, and her mother was chatty also.

After he left the apartment he walked across Central Park and then took the subway downtown, where he got off at Fourteenth Street and walked the remaining distance to New York University; he enjoyed this daily walking even though he noticed that he was not as fast as the young people who bumped past him with their bags of food, or their strollers with two kids, or their spandex tights and earbuds in their ears, their yoga mats on a piece of elastic slung over their shoulders. He took heart in the fact that he could pass many people-the old man with a walker, or a woman who used a cane, or even just a person his age who...