Elizabeth Strout (2021) Oh William!

I’m not a great fan of Elizabeth Strout. Yet I’ve read most of the books in this series (My Name is Lucy Barton, Olive Kitteridge, Olive Again, and Anything is Possible).William Gerhardt who Lucy was married to for twenty years, and had two daughters with, before they separated and she married David ( the cellist, and love of her life, who died last year) would explain it in terms of compulsion.

William admitted he had affairs when he was married to Lucy. That was connected to his sense of wealth and entitlement. His affair with Pam Carlson, for example was more of an afterthought. Lucy was friendly with her, but didn’t know they had an affair until he admitted it on their road trip. But the affairs didn’t mean much. Pam didn’t mean much. But he’d loved Lucy.  He questioned the notion of free will as beyond banal.

Lucy, as a successful writer, questioned everything, including whether writing is a vocation (the answer was Yes, in My Name is Lucy Barton, even for the 99% that made no money from the albatross of their gift) the same as being a priest or nun, or whether you could really know yourself. William had been her ‘rock’ (clichéd, I know) when they were married. But now she wondered if she created that myth to sustain herself. The questions Lucy asks herself are the questions we ask ourselves (plural) and the engine of their road trip to find out more about William having a sister. What I mean by that is he found out about her indirectly from a present he didn’t want from a wife that had left him about tracing his ancestors.  

Stylistically, Lucy traces out an idea, and qualifies it by frequent, ‘what I mean by that’ as if she is having a conversation with the reader.

Unlike William, and the majority of her readers (who tend to be women and therefore more empathetic) she doesn’t come from money and tends to be insecure in ways many would recognise, and this spills over into panic attacks and depression (which are big business for the pharmaceutical industry).

There have been a few time—and I mean recently—when I feel the curtain of my childhood descend around me once again. A terrible enclosure, a quiet horror: This is the feeling and it was my entire childhood, and it came back to me with a whoosh the other day. To remember so quietly, yet so vividly, to have it re-presented to me in this way, the sense of doom I grew up with, knowing I could never leave the house (except to go to school, which meant the world to me, even though I had no friends there, but I was out of the house)…There was no escape.  

Authority as a writer, Lucy suggests comes from somewhere without and within. Somehow we’d recognise it. And she echoes other writers such as Robert M. Pirsig search for quality in the classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  In a nudge to the reader of the absurdity of this she suggests William may have lost his sense of authority when he shaved off his moustache. Their two daughters had wondered—perhaps hoped— Lucy and William might somehow get back together again. But his mystique, with his moustache, is gone. Oh William! Is already sniffing around other women and it’s like old times with him asking her to vet them via Google.

They’ve been on a journey and they’re back to where they started. It’s not T.S.Eliot’s The Waste Land, but the end-of-life secret of Elisabeth Strout/Lucy Barton isn’t what she thinks, but what she feels…What I mean by that…

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