Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout

Book extract

Read the 2022 longlist: an extract from Oh William! By Elizabeth Strout

Bestselling author Elizabeth Strout returns to her beloved heroine Lucy Barton in a luminous novel about love, loss, and the family secrets that can erupt and bewilder us at any time. Read the opening words here

Lucy Barton is a successful writer living in New York, navigating the second half of her life as a recent widow and parent to two adult daughters. A surprise encounter leads her to reconnect with William, her first husband - and longtime, on-again/off-again friend and confidante.

Recalling their college years, the birth of their daughters, the painful dissolution of their marriage, and the lives they built with other people, Strout weaves a portrait, stunning in its subtlety, of a tender, complex, decades-long partnership.

Read more extracts from this year’s longlisted titles here.

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

William has lately been through some very sad events— many of us have— but I would like to mention them, it feels almost a compulsion; he is seventy-one years old now. My second husband, David, died last year, and in my grief for him I have felt grief for William as well. Grief is such a— oh, it is such a solitary thing; this is the terror of it, I think. It is like sliding down the outside of a really long glass building while nobody sees you.

But it is William I want to speak of here.

His name is William Gerhardt, and when we married I took his last name, even though at the time it was not fashionable to do so. My college roommate said, “Lucy, you’re taking his name? I thought you were a feminist.” And I told her that I did not care about being a feminist; I told her I did not want to be me anymore. At that time I felt that I was tired of being me, I had spent my whole life not wanting to be me— this is what I thought then— and so I took his name and became Lucy Gerhardt for eleven years, but it did not ever feel right to me, and almost immediately after William’s mother died I went to the motor vehicle place to get my own name back on my driver’s license, even though it was more difficult than I had thought it would be; I had to go back and bring in some court documents; but I did.

I became Lucy Barton again.

We were married for almost twenty years before I left him and we have two daughters, and we have been friendly for a long time now— how, I am not sure exactly. There are many terrible stories of divorce, but except for the separation itself ours is not one of them. Sometimes I thought I would die from the pain of our separating, and the pain it caused my girls, but I did not die, and I am here, and so is William.

Because I am a novelist, I have to write this almost like a novel, but it is true— as true as I can make it. And I want to say— oh, it is difficult to know what to say! But when I report something about William it is because he told it to me or because I saw it with my own eyes.

So I will start this story when William was sixty-nine years old, which is less than two years ago now.

Elizabeth Strout

A visual: Recently William’s lab assistant had taken to calling William “Einstein,” and William seemed to get a real kick out of that. I do not think William looks like Einstein at all, but I take the young woman’s point. William has a very full mustache with gray in its whiteness, but it is sort of a trimmed mustache and his hair is full and white. It is cut, but it does stick out from his head. He is a tall man, and he dresses very well. And he does not have that vaguely crazy look that Einstein, to my mind, seemed to have. William’s face is often closed with an unyielding pleasantness, except for once in a very great while when he throws his head back in real laughter; I have not seen him do that for a long time. His eyes are brown and they have stayed large; not everyone’s eyes stay large as they get older, but William’s eyes have. 

Now— Every morning William would rise in his spacious apartment on Riverside Drive. Picture him— throwing aside the fluffy quilt with its dark blue cotton cover, his wife still asleep in their king-size bed, and going into the bathroom. He would, every morning, be stiff. But he had exercises and he did them, going out into the living room, lying on his back on the large black-and-red rug with the antique chandelier above him, pedaling his legs in the air as though on a bicycle, then stretching them this way and that. Then he’d move to the large maroon chair by the window that looked out over the Hudson River, and he would read the news on his laptop there. At some point Estelle would emerge from the bedroom and wave to him sleepily and then she would wake their daughter, Bridget, who was ten, and after William took his shower the three of them had breakfast in the kitchen at the round table; William enjoyed the routine of this, and his daughter was a chatty girl, which he liked as well; it was as though listening to a bird, he once said, and her mother was chatty also.

Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout

William’s face is often closed with an unyielding pleasantness, except for once in a very great while when he throws his head back in real laughter

After he left the apartment he walked across Central Park and then took the subway downtown, where he got off at Fourteenth Street and walked the remaining distance to New York University; he enjoyed this daily walking even though he noticed that he was not as fast as the young people who bumped past him with their bags of food, or their strollers with two kids, or their spandex tights and earbuds in their ears, their yoga mats on a piece of elastic slung over their shoulders. He took heart in the fact that he could pass many people— the old man with a walker, or a woman who used a cane, or even just a person his age who seemed to move more slowly than he did— and this made him feel healthy and alive and almost invulnerable in a world of constant traffic. He was proud that he walked more than ten thousand steps a day.

William felt (almost) invulnerable, is what I am saying here.

Some days on these morning walks he would think, Oh God I could be that man— ! over there in the wheelchair sitting in the morning sun in Central Park, an aide on a bench typing on her cellphone as the man’s head dropped forward to his chest, or he could be that one— ! with an arm twisted from a stroke, a gait uneven— But then William would think: No, I am not those people. And he was not those people. He was, as I have said, a tall man, to whom age had not added extra weight (except for a small potbelly you could barely see with his clothes on), a man who still had his hair, white now but full, and he was— William. And he had a wife, his third, twenty-two years younger than he was. And that was no small thing.

But at night, he often had terrors.

 

Oh William! By Elizabeth Strout is published by Viking, £8.99

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