In the annals of fiction, ex-spouses don’t get a lot of ink. Leave it to Portland native and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Elizabeth Strout to turn that commonplace on its head – to envision a couple who, in their post-marital life, are like old blue jeans. Their marriage may be over, but William Gerhardt and Lucy Barton are the most durable of friends. Each is the other’s dating advisor and confidante; they still call each other by pet names. Strout’s absorbing novel, “Oh William!,” the third in her Amgash Series, chronicles their improbable history together – he, from affluent Newton, Massachusetts; she, from the bleakest poverty of rural Amgash, Illinois.

When we first meet them, Lucy, 64, is a recent widow, grieving the loss of her cherished second husband, David. William, now 71, is married for the third time, a scientist at NYU. They meet for breakfast at a diner in Manhattan, where he confides that he’s been having night terrors. One is about his mother, Catherine, whom he adored; another is about his father, a German POW, who fought in World War II on the side of the Nazis. When these nightmares intrude, what comforts William (as he lies next to his sleeping wife!) is thinking of Lucy, his first wife, and knowing that he can call her at any hour.

And with that, the contours of this ancient, yet thoroughly modern, tale unfold. The past is never far from these characters, looming at times and receding at others. A simple plot device brings the narrative into our current moment: Like countless Americans these days, William receives a gift subscription to an ancestry website. Dismissive at first, he then embraces the opportunity to learn about his roots. The upshot is a road trip that William and Lucy take to Maine, in search of a half-sister he never knew about. In turn, that discovery exposes secret parts of his mother’s early life that will change his (and Lucy’s) understanding of, well, everything.

About William and Lucy on the road: Not many former spouses travel together, much less by choice, or by car. Driving on the Maine Turnpike with nothing but woods in sight, Lucy gets frightened, as she tends to in unfamiliar places. William becomes distant, and each of them reverts to type.

William later apologizes “for all that crap I did in our marriage,” as does Lucy for “how weird I got.”

“We have had this conversation – almost exactly that –  for a number of years since we separated, not frequently, but every so often it pops up: a mutual apology,” Lucy says. “It seemed completely right that we should say this now.” And later: “Even as I thought of us as being Hansel and Gretel lost in the woods, I always felt safe in (William’s) presence….I said to a friend, ‘It is like I was a fish swimming round and round and then I bumped into this rock.’”


What they learn on this trip upends their understanding of William’s mother, Catherine, and causes a realignment of the family puzzle. And it causes Lucy to wonder whether William, notwithstanding all his privilege, chose Lucy for her likeness to his mother. It all makes a certain kind of sense, even if it’s unknowable, a major theme of Strout’s.

“Oh William!” is, at once, breezy and consequential, in the way that Strout can mention something in passing and also leave a mark. In the character of Lucy, herself a novelist, Strout adds metafiction to the mix, referencing Lucy’s previous books. Lucy is our narrator, filled with worry and doubt, afraid of nearly everything. She expresses this in her sometimes halting speech, with its switchbacks and reiterations, uncertainty all over the page. It’s a style derived from oral storytelling, with its pauses and deflections: “But here is what I want to say,” or “But there is also this.”

Lucy narrates in this confiding, conversational style, so it feels like she’s talking directly to each reader. When she says, “Two things happened to William after we met at the diner, and I will get to those soon,” you want to stick around. Strout makes it hard to put the book down.

Predictably, William and Lucy’s grown-up daughters can’t resist the temptation to ask what’s up with their parents. They are, after all, traveling together. And what child, regardless of age, doesn’t want her family story to have a happy ending? Yet it’s taken William and Lucy multiple marriages between them to reach their current state of equanimity. They are older and indeed wiser, as much for the lives they’ve lived apart as for the identities they’ve forged together.

Joan Silverman writes op-eds, essays and book reviews. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including The Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune and Dallas Morning News. She is the author of “Someday This Will Fit,” a collection of linked essays.

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