I Digress: Oh, William! by Elizabeth Strout — Booker Prize Short List, Book Two

So, I thought this book was going to be about Olive Kitteridge. I had it in my head that it was a sequel to one of Ms. Strout’s earlier books, but it turns out this one is another book about Lucy Barton whom we met in 2016’s My Name is Lucy Barton. You don’t need to know anything about the earlier book to enjoy Oh, William!

The plot follows Lucy and her first husband William on a road trip north to rural Maine where they hope to meet the sister William never knew he had. But it’s the digressions that matter here.

Most of the book consists of Lucy recalling things about her own life, her life with William and the two now grown daughters they raised, and stories of William’s life from before and after their marriage. It makes for a fascinating, if curious, read.

The first thing I was left thinking about was that the book’s structure doesn’t leave the plot with much forward motion, not that this doesn’t really matters. Lucy’s digressions are fascinating, even when they are mundane observations. As a reader, I was never bored. In fact, the book becomes a bit hard to put down in a strange way. I can’t say there is any suspense at all, there really isn’t. It’s more a feeling of enjoyment from spending time with these characters. Getting to know them and the stories of their lives becomes as rewarding as knowing what happens next might be in a more plot driven novel. It’s a bit like having a good conversation with an acquaintance, so good that you don’t want it to end even after two cups of coffee.

Secondly, I was intrigued to be reading a book about a man written by a woman. I think the title of the book brought this question to the forefront for me. Years ago, a group of women at a teacher’s workshop I was attending came back from lunch loudly complaining that they had never found a man who could accurately portray a woman in anything they had read. None of the men in the class, including me, offered any suggestions– none of us were willing to walk into that trap. I don’t know how I would judge this, myself, but I also am not sure how any of the women could judge this either. Accurate to whom? Is your experience the experience of all those like you? How often do you read something without knowing the gender of the author? Doesn’t this bias your judgement? But I do think it is an interesting question. Reverse it here. Can a woman accurately portray a man?

Elizabeth Strout distances herself from this issue by giving the narration to Lucy Barton instead of taking on the task herself. Lucy, our first-person narrator, tells us about William. William does not speak for himself except for a few text messages. Is William an accurate portrayal? I would say yes; at least he’s an accurate portrayal of what Lucy understands him to be. I was still wondering about this question by the end of the book, but that is true to Lucy’s experience, to all of our experiences probably. We can know each other only so well. Even those we live with for years, share a bed with for years, remain somewhat unknown.

Finally, I couldn’t help but compare this book to Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These which I just read and which is also short listed for this year’s Booker Prize. How does Oh, William! compare. It’s interesting that both are books by women centered on a male character. Ms. Keegan gets much closer to her central character through a third person narrator (limited omniscient?) who can let the reader in on what he is thinking. We learn all Lucy Barton has to say about William, but we never get inside William’s head. This does not make either book better than the other, it’s just two different ways to attempt the same task. Both are driven by flashbacks and digressions while the main character goes on a journey across the country or across the town where both find a woman they did not know about before who has the potential to change their lives.

I was thinking it would be a tie right up until the final ten pages of Oh, William!. What broke the competition in favor of Claire Keegan was that the main action of Oh, William! ends before the book does. My own emotional involvement in the book dissipated before the final pages, which didn’t happen in Small Things Like These. where Ms. Keegan kept me reading and worried right up the the book’s final line. But both are excellent books. Both feature excellent writing and memorable characters. Both stayed with me for several days after I finished reading them. But this one detail moved my decision in favor of Claire Keegan. It was not easy to choose.

I was going to say that I don’t envy the Booker Prize judges their job, but I really do. That would be such a fun job. If any one of them can’t complete their task, I am available through Zoom and would be more than happy to help out. I’m already reading a third shortlisted book as I type this….

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