Oh William!: Book summary and reviews of Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout

Oh William!

Amgash Series #3

by Elizabeth Strout

Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout X
Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout
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About this book

Book Summary

Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout explores the mysteries of marriage and the secrets we keep, as a former couple reckons with where they've come from - and what they've left behind.

I would like to say a few things about my first husband, William.

Lucy Barton is a writer, but her ex-husband, William, remains a hard man to read. William, she confesses, has always been a mystery to me. Another mystery is why the two have remained connected after all these years. They just are.

So Lucy is both surprised and not surprised when William asks her to join him on a trip to investigate a recently uncovered family secret—one of those secrets that rearrange everything we think we know about the people closest to us. What happens next is nothing less than another example of what Hilary Mantel has called Elizabeth Strout's "perfect attunement to the human condition." There are fears and insecurities, simple joys and acts of tenderness, and revelations about affairs and other spouses, parents and their children. On every page of this exquisite novel we learn more about the quiet forces that hold us together—even after we've grown apart.

At the heart of this story is the indomitable voice of Lucy Barton, who offers a profound, lasting reflection on the very nature of existence. "This is the way of life," Lucy says: "the many things we do not know until it is too late."

First published in October 2021; paperback reprint April 2022.

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
  1. Why have Lucy and William stayed in each other's lives? Did you find yourself wishing they would get back together? How, if at all, did that feeling change over the course of the book?
  2. Compare and contrast Lucy's marriages to William and to David. How does she characterize each relationship? How does each man complement her in a different way?
  3. What does Lucy learn about herself through her relationship with William? What have you learned about yourself through your relationships with others?
  4. Discuss Lucy's relationship with her mother-in-law, Catherine. What does the story about Catherine getting rid of the coat Lucy loved say about their relationship? Did your opinion of Catherine change as you learned more about her past? If ...

You can see the full discussion here. This discussion will contain spoilers!

Some of the recent comments posted about Oh William!:

Discuss Lucy's thoughts on having a home without William and her view that to deny her husband the chance of comforting her was "an unspeakably awful thing."
In a marriage or other close relationship sometimes one person is suffering. If the other person can comfort the sufferer it benefits both persons. But not allowing the other to comfort can create a big distance between the two. A few days before ... - Charli Fulton

Do you agree with Lucy's views on class in America? Where do you see the themes of class and money appearing in the book?
I agree with Lucy's feelings on class in America. She knows from her experiences growing up that without the help of a great school counselor she would probably be like her siblings. She was able to physically move on but in her heart and mind... - reene

How did you feel about Lucy and William by the end of the book?
I honestly found them rather self-involved. It is a rare privilege that most people do not share to have the mental energy to spend so much time chewing on old traumas. I realize they were both deeply damaged by their childhoods, especially Lucy, but... - reidob

How do we get to know about the characters who populate this book?
Through Lucy's descriptions. I felt she gave very good all-around descriptions of the characters. - kathleenb

How do you think Lucy and William were influenced by their parents' trauma? How were their daughters influenced by their parents' trauma? Is there a way to stop this cycle?
These childhood experiences the author states significantly affected the mature characters. It probably is overstated, since this is clearly the source of conflicts in the novel. The only positive sign the author gives us is that the cycle probably... - bryanu

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"Loneliness and betrayal, themes to which the Pulitzer Prize–winning Strout has returned throughout her career, are ever present in this illuminating character-driven saga... It's not for nothing that Strout has been compared to Hemingway. In some ways, she betters him." - Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Strout's habitual themes of loneliness and the impossibility of ever truly knowing another person are ubiquitous in this deeply sad tale, which takes its title from Lucy's head-shaking acknowledgment that her ex will never change, cannot change the remoteness at the core of his personality. Another skillful, pensive exploration of Strout's fundamental credo: 'We are all mysteries.'" - Kirkus Reviews

"Elizabeth Strout is one of my very favorite writers, so the fact that Oh William! may well be my favorite of her books is a mathematical equation for joy. The depth, complexity, and love contained in these pages is a miraculous achievement." - Ann Patchett, author of The Dutch House

This information about Oh William! was first featured in "The BookBrowse Review" - BookBrowse's membership magazine, and in our weekly "Publishing This Week" newsletter. Publication information is for the USA, and (unless stated otherwise) represents the first print edition. The reviews are necessarily limited to those that were available to us ahead of publication. If you are the publisher or author and feel that they do not properly reflect the range of media opinion now available, send us a message with the mainstream reviews that you would like to see added.

Any "Author Information" displayed below reflects the author's biography at the time this particular book was published.

Reader Reviews

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Cloggie Downunder

another powerful read
Oh William! is the third novel in the Amgash series by best-selling, Pulitzer Prize winning American author, Elizabeth Strout. Not long widowed and still very much grieving her second husband, David Abramson, Lucy Barton relates recent events in the life of her first husband, William Gerhardt.

Two life-changing things that occur in fairly short succession see her travelling with William to Maine to perhaps connect with a relative of whom William was, until recently, unaware. It’s a journey of many revelations, both about newly-discovered family, those already departed, each other and themselves.

Lucy’s narrative comes across as a little rambling, at first, but it soon becomes clear that all those casual asides, those frequently inserted anecdotes from earlier, are given to illustrate a certain point, a feeling, an opinion.

Musing on what she had with each husband, she tells the reader that even though “At times in our marriage I loathed him. I saw, with a kind of dull disc of dread in my chest, that with his pleasant distance, his mild expressions, he was unavailable”, William was her home, that she felt safe in his presence.

She does not talk much about David, noting what they had in common “It is hard to describe what it is like when one is raised in such isolation from the outside world. So we became each other’s home. But we— both of us felt this way—we felt that we were perched like birds on a telephone wire in New York City” and concluding that “David was a tremendous comfort to me.”

Strout gives her characters palpable emotions, wise words and insightful observations. When Lucy is unable to understand why William married her, a nothing, he tells her: “Lucy, I married you because you were filled with joy. You were just filled with joy. And when I finally realized what you came from—when we went to your house that day to meet your family and tell them we were getting married, Lucy, I almost died at what you came from. I had no idea that was what you came from. And I kept thinking, But how is she what she is? How could she come from this and have so much exuberance? …. There has never been anyone in the world like you. You steal people’s hearts, Lucy.”

Strout’s writing, both in style and subject matter, is reminiscent of Sebastian Barry with shades of Anne Tyler. Strout writes about ordinary people leading what they believe are ordinary lives (although there are definitely some quirky ones doing strange things amongst them) and does it with exquisite yet succinct prose. Another powerful read.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Penguin UK Viking.

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Author Information

Elizabeth Strout Author Biography

Elizabeth Strout was born in Portland, Maine, and grew up in small towns in Maine and New Hampshire.  From a young age she was drawn to writing things down, keeping notebooks that recorded the quotidian details of her days.  She was also drawn to books, and spent hours of her youth in the local library lingering among the stacks of fiction.  During the summer months of her childhood she played outdoors, either with her brother, or, more often, alone, and this is where she developed her deep and abiding love of the physical world: the seaweed covered rocks along the coast of Maine, and the woods of New Hampshire with its hidden wildflowers.

During her adolescent years, Strout continued writing avidly, having conceived of herself as a writer from early on.  She read ...

... Full Biography
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