FICTION: In Elizabeth Strout's latest novel, the character of Lucy Barton returns and tries to understand her attachment to her troubled ex-husband.
"Oh William!" by Elizabeth Strout; Random House (256 pages, $27)
The latest novel from Elizabeth Strout may be named for a man, but at its heart is a woman trying to tell us something about herself. In "Oh William!," Lucy Barton, the narrator of Strout's spare, haunting novel "My Name Is Lucy Barton," is struggling to write about her ex-husband William, who is suffering through a personal crisis. A new revelation has challenged his sense of himself and his family, and Lucy wants to support him through this emotional calamity.
But Lucy is a writer, and like all writers (and humans in general), her thoughts return inevitably to herself. Turns out this isn't really William's story. It's about Lucy, who needs to understand her attachment to her ex-husband and what she's gotten wrong about their relationship.
"Oh William!" is the third of Strout's books that include Lucy. (The second is the story collection "Anything Is Possible," in which Lucy appears in a single story, visiting the brother and sister she fled long ago.) Whether we needed a third installment remains up for debate: While it's always a pleasure to read Strout's restrained but lovely prose and skillful character sketches, "Oh William!" lacks the urgency and affecting, understated power of the original novel.
Still, now that it's here, this is a book worth reading. Strout, who won a Pulitzer Prize for "Olive Kitteridge" in 2009 and followed it with the equally powerful "Olive, Again," continues to add depth and dimension to her recurring characters by viewing them through different lenses. Here, she brings Lucy slowly into a sharper focus, homing in on her loneliness (a common Strout theme) and her nagging certainty that her impoverished childhood has marked her forever as an outsider. Lucy may lack Olive Kitteridge's ruthless brand of honesty, but she's pushing her way toward insight.
As a writer, Lucy seems more tentative than before, punctuating her narrative with repeated justification and equivocation: "I would like to say this" and "I need to say this though" and "please try to understand this." She still struggles with feeling unseen: "I really do not know what I mean, except to say that on some very fundamental level, I feel invisible in this world."
Upon learning that Lucy and William take a road trip to Maine to confront the revelations, you may be tempted to cringe, but in Strout's hands the journey never feels trite. Instead, she invests us deeply in Lucy's epiphany: Even though we are fueled by presumptions and believe what we want to believe, the truth is always within our sight. "We kind of know who we are without knowing it," Lucy realizes at the end of the book. Oh, Lucy! We do.