Book reviews: Oh William! and the things that I didn’t throw away
American novelist Elizabeth Strout has built a large and loyal fan base since her formidable Olive Kitteridge won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009. Much like Anne Tyler, with whom she shares an interest in the inner lives of women immersed in their family, she is celebrated for the authenticity of her constantly dreamy female characters, and their poise of duty, love, self-interest, and the influence of the past. His new novel Oh William! sees her return for the third time to beloved Lucy Barton, who we first met five years ago in My Name is Lucy Barton.
In terms of plot, it certainly helps to have read the 2016 novel, in which Lucy recounts her terrible childhood of poverty, social isolation, and family neglect, as well as her pathologically dysfunctional relationship with her mother. But Strout’s best novels are rich in deceptively light little anecdotes that, to borrow an oddly appropriate boxing phrase, flutter like a butterfly and sting like a bee. Oh William! is no different, delivering its emotional punches in the form of brief pop-up memories and driving memories; life as a series of pains and blows.
Lucy is now a successful writer living in New York, mourning the death of her beloved second husband, David. She enjoyed a friendly and loving relationship with her first husband and father of her two daughters, the titular William. After discovering that before she was born, her mother had abandoned a baby girl, William enlists Lucy on a trip to Maine to find her half-sister.
Strout’s prose is particularly understated, which might explain why fellow admirers ask “How does she do it?” How do her everyday economic phrases conjure up scenes so familiar and true that it feels like she stole them from our heads? Is it true that our great friends Olive and Lucy aren’t real? Lucy is a generous-minded narrator, eager to connect by sharing poignant personal memories, though she is also incredibly honest about her regular failures of non-fiction expression or conclusion; “I’m not sure”, “I couldn’t describe it”, “I don’t know what to say!”. His liberal use of Austen-esque exclamation marks — implying surprise blushing on the cheek or long-standing vexation — further helps bring it to life.
Strout is extremely insightful about the lingering impact of childhood and how even a past full of sadness, fear and loss can be sorely missed. We journey through his stories as we drift through our own lives, via moods and daydreams carried away by random bursts of music, mundane memories, a whiff of deja vu, an offhand commentary. Humans are unsolvable mysteries negotiating an ungovernable life, Lucy decides, but it’s by striving to connect that we make it worth living.
Like the fictional Lucy Barton, writer Marcin Wicha had a strained and complicated relationship with his mother. Irish weather called Wicha Poland’s answer to David Sedaris, but I think it’s better than that. Her memoir Things I Didn’t Throw Out paints a vivid picture of her late mother through the many trinkets, books and trinkets that vied for space on her apartment shelves. Wicha is extremely funny about his mother in an envious, disposable style (“‘A lovely boy,'” she said, because she remembered me not liking him”), but he’s as deep, able to summon the ghosts of a ravished post-war Poland alongside one of his long-suffering memory collectors.