I read this in one sitting (long haul flight) and was totally consumed. Our narrator Lucy talks directly to the reader, repeating herself, I mean, repeating herself like a speaker would, telling you what she’s going to tell you, and then telling it, and there’s an easy rhythm to her chat. This is an intimate memoir of New Yorker, Lucy Barton, and her ongoing affection for her ex-husband, the titular William, with the oh! representing all the times she feels sorrow for him, or frustration, or exasperation, or pathos. There’s a lot of Oh Williams! because she does still care, deeply, about this man, the father of their two daughters who, after they split, went on to other wives and lovers and then found himself, in his seventies, alone, with no one to tell him his trousers are too short. Oh William!
(My kids ‘oh Mum!’ me. I know how many different ways there are to say it).
Lucy’s story packs strong emotional punches. We join her after her second husband, her beloved David, has died, and this she finds this hard to talk about. She tells us that she will come to it later, or that this is not something she wants to tell us about now, or that she has ‘written about this before’. The character Lucy is an author, she has dragged herself out of a horribly poor and abusive childhood to fame and book tours. She dips into her background so we learn it in patches, she doesn’t want to dwell on it ‘but I will just say this,’ she says, and tells us about the cold house and colder parents. This referral to her previous life worked for me at face value, but Strout has written other books about this character, Lucy Barton, so some readers will already have read what Strout has written about before. I find it hard to believe this woman is made up. She is such a force and so very convincing it feels as if Lucy the author must, in fact, be Strout, the author. How is it possible to create someone with such a depth and truth to her emotions?
There is this idea that people who grow up poor understand each other, and I believe this, that adults from similar backgrounds have a connection. We carry our childhoods with us, tainted by privilege or deprivation, and we recognise this in others – perhaps not always consciously. Reactions to certain triggers reveal learned behaviour: Lucy’s panic attacks, her loathing of being cold, her need to feel safe with someone all point back to an unloved and impoverished child.
Lucy and William take a trip through the boondocks of Maine in a quest to uncover an uncomfortable truth about William’s mother (a story and character interesting enough to stand alone) and Lucy gives us her thoughts on William, their children, his mother, their lives and everything else as the journey unfolds.
I can’t get enough of Lucy Barton. Lucky for me, there’s more.