Review 1739: Oh William!

In Oh William! we meet again Elizabeth Strout’s alter ego, Lucy Barton. Lucy’s second husband David has recently died. She considers her own grief in addition to the state of mind of her first husband, William, who begins to experience some shocks in life.

First, William’s third wife, Estelle, leaves him abruptly. Then William begins to find out some family secrets, particularly about his mother, Catherine. Lucy, who has remained on good terms with William, reflects upon her relationships with him, Catherine, and her own family as she tries to help him.

link to Netgalley

As usual, the story, which is told as a series of apparently random recollections and incidents, is written in lovely prose. What stands out for me even more than that in the Lucy Barton books is Lucy’s gentleness and the loving, accepting way she approaches the world and the other characters. Although Strout’s novels are not strongly plot driven, once you start one, you just want to keep reading.

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Review 1526: Olive, Again

Best of Ten!
Reading Olive Kitteridge years ago was a revelation to me, first about structure—how Strout could create a novel of a bunch of loosely connected stories—and second about her empathy for her characters, ordinary people in a small Maine town. Finally, there was that force of nature, Olive herself.

Olive, Again is no disappointment. This novel is structured much the same as Olive Kitteridge, stories about Olive and stories in which she is a secondary character or is simply mentioned or thought of. Olive herself is an old woman, who nevertheless toward the beginning of the novel embarks on her second marriage. The novel revisits her difficult relationship with her son, who brings his family for a disastrous visit that gives Olive insight into their relationship as well as that between herself and her first husband, Henry.

Olive is still her straightforward, brusque self, but many of the stories are about troubled people who feel better after encounters with her. Because they live in a small town, people who are the focus of one story appear or are mentioned in the others. For example, in “Helped,” Suzanne Larkin, from a disturbed family, has a heartfelt talk with her father’s lawyer, Bernie, whom Olive meets when she is living in an assisted living facility later in life.

Characters from some of Strout’s other books appear here, too, perhaps more characters than I remembered. Certainly, there are Jim and Bob Burgess from The Burgess Boys, a story about Jim and his wife visiting from New York, as well as Isabelle from Amy and Isabelle, whom Olive befriends in assisted living.

This is another warm and empathetic novel about complex but ordinary people. Strout is a master crafter of a tale.

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Review 1360: Abide with Me

Cover for Abide with MeElizabeth Strout is known for her compassionate explorations of true-to-life characters. Set in the late 1950’s, Abide with Me explores the states of mind of Tyler Caskey, a troubled minister, and his congregation.

Tyler is in mourning for his wife, who passed away from cancer. His mother has insisted on caring for his youngest daughter, Jeanne, while his five-year-old daughter, Katherine, lives with him.

Tyler is afraid he has lost his relationship with God. He is performing his duties without joy or inspiration. Katherine is having troubles in Kindergarten, because her teacher can’t understand that she is grieving. Aside from this, Tyler only feels comfortable talking to his housekeeper, Connie, and rumors are beginning to go around.

Misunderstandings divide the minister from his congregation. Strout builds tension as the pressures upon the minister build.

This is another insightful and touching novel by Strout. In some ways, it reminded me of Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, except that it doesn’t require as much erudition to understand it.

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Day 1071: Anything Is Possible

Cover for Anything Is PossibleLike Olive Kitteridge, which this book reminds me strongly of, Anything Is Possible is a series of linked short stories. What links these stories is Lucy Barton, the main character of Elizabeth Strout’s previous novel. Each story is about a family relation of Lucy or a resident of her home town in rural Illinois, and Lucy appears as a character in one story.

In “The Sign,” Tommy Guptill, who was the janitor at Lucy’s school when she was a girl, goes to visit Lucy’s brother Pete. There he learns that Pete has long believed a terrible thing about the night long ago when Tommy’s dairy farm burned down.

In “Windmills,” Patty Nicely, a school mate of Lucy’s, is able to overcome an insult from Lucy’s niece and help her make her own escape from town. Patty also reviews her life with her gentle husband Sebastian, who has died.

“Cracked” explores the strange marital life of Linda Peterson-Cornell, Patty Nicely’s niece. Although Linda has married a wealthy man and escaped poverty, her husband has some disturbing pastimes.

link to NetgalleyIn “The Hit-Thumb Theory,” Charlie Macauley, to whom Patty Nicely is attracted, is devastated to find out the truth behind his relationship with a woman. In an attempt to recover before going home, he goes to stay at a B&B. Later, we hear from the B&B’s owner, another relative of the Nicelys.

And so on. These stories are beautifully and perceptively told, evoking sympathy for even the most unlikable characters. As I was for My Name is Lucy Barton, I was caught up in the gentleness and empathy of these stories.

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Day 836: My Name Is Lucy Barton

Cover for My Name Is Lucy BartonBest Book of the Week!
Lucy Barton grew up very poor in rural Illinois. She looks back to a time as a young married woman, living in New York City with her husband and two daughters and learning to write. At the time, she had not returned to her parents’ house since she went to college. Something horrible associated with her father is hinted at.

Much of Lucy’s story centers around a stay in the hospital, where for some weeks she has an undiagnosed illness. Her husband can’t bear hospitals, so he asks her mother to come. Her mother stays with her, never leaving her room and refusing to use the cot the nurses provide. During this visit, her mother tells her stories about people they both know.

For much of their lives, Lucy’s family has been outcasts. At school other children complained that they smelled funny. For many years, they lived in a garage with exposure to extreme cold and no access to running water. When she was a little girl and both her parents were at work, her older siblings at school, her parents would lock her into her father’s truck. One time a snake was in there with her. These are some of the horrors of Lucy’s childhood.

link to NetgalleyWe can see that Lucy loves other people for the slightest show of kindness. We can understand why.

My Name Is Lucy Barton is an affecting story about a woman learning to deal with her own past and loving people despite it. The novel is also about becoming a writer.

Strout’s prose is wonderful as usual, picking out the little details of life that make her prose so convincing. I delight in Strout’s depictions of ordinary life and people.

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Day 652: Amy and Isabelle

Cover for Amy and IsabelleIn 60’s small-town New England, Isabelle Goodrow and her 16-year-old daughter Amy are having a tough summer. They are together all the time because Amy has a job in the mill office where Isabelle has worked for years, but they are presently resentful of each other and barely speak.

Although Amy has been harboring typical teenage feelings toward her mother, their problems go back a lot farther. Some of them have roots in how Isabelle has represented herself in town since she moved there. She has some social ambitions and thinks she is more refined than the other women who work in the office. Quietly in love with her married boss for years, she is concerned about how she and her daughter are perceived. She also has secrets.

But their immediate problems begin earlier that school year, when insecure Amy thinks she is in love.

This is my third Strout novel, and I like how observant she is of life in these small, conservative New England towns. She presents us with situations that are dramatic but common and has us examine the lives of ordinary people. Amy and Isabelle are hard on each other, as mothers and daughters can be, but they are also able to learn from their mistakes, even if the lessons are painful.

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Day 565: Olive Kitteridge

Cover for Olive KitteridgeThis collection of linked short stories lucidly illuminates the contradictions that make up the human condition. The link that binds the stories together is Olive Kitteridge, a retired schoolteacher in small-town Maine.

Olive is plain-spoken and gruff. Some people are afraid of her, but she can show sudden compassion and insight.

In “The Pharmacy,” Olive’s gentle husband Henry falls in love with his young pharmacy assistant without ever making his feelings known. In “A Little Burst,” Olive steals some of her daughter-in-law’s clothes during the wedding at the house the Kitteridges built for their son. She has overheard Suzanne saying nasty things about her. In “Tulips,” after Henry has a heart attack, Olive reflects upon their pain that their son Christopher moved away to California with his wife, and even after divorcing did not return or invite them to visit.

In other stories, Olive is less important or simply a presence. A timely conversation with her seems to keep a young man named Kevin from attempting suicide in “Incoming Tide.” In another story, the Kitteridges stroll to the restaurant through the bar where Angie plays the piano every night and thinks about the man she loved.

With neighbors and strangers, Olive says exactly the right thing in a difficult moment, and with her loved ones exactly the wrong thing. Many of the stories are sad but ultimately touching. Strout uses an unusual structure to create the sense of a lovely and affecting novel.

Day 542: The Burgess Boys

Cover for The Burgess BoysBest Book of the Week!
I had an unusual reaction to The Burgess Boys. Part of the way through, I was interested in how it would come out but at the same time wondered if I was liking it. By the end of the novel, though, I found it extremely satisfying.

The novel is about the clearly dysfunctional Burgess family, from a small town in Maine. When the three Burgess children were small, their father was killed in a freakish accident, run over by his own car rolling down the hilly driveway. All three kids were inside the car, and four-year-old Bob was behind the wheel when their mother came out to find their father dead. Mild-mannered Bob has carried this burden all his life, dealing with ridicule from his brother Jim and dislike from his twin sister Susan.

Jim and Bob long ago left Maine for New York City. But they are called back by a distraught Susan. Her son Zach has committed the inexplicable act of throwing a pig’s head into a mosque during Ramadan. Although Susan shows a good deal of ignorance about the local Somali population, the family cannot comprehend Zach’s action. He is a quiet misfit teenager, confused and pathetic, who has no friends. Unhappy especially since his father left for Sweden, he nevertheless does not seem to be angry or have any strong feelings at all except for being plainly terrified by the trouble he is in. He has a reason for his actions that is generally clueless, but it takes awhile for the family to discover it.

A former hotshot lawyer in Maine and famous for having won a high-profile case, Jim is the person Susan is relying on. Zach goes in to the police station to confess to the crime, and it seems as if the case will be handled quietly, but the civil liberties groups get involved and soon there is an uproar. When Jim’s grandstanding at a political event does more harm than good, Zach is charged with a hate crime.

As Jim takes charge while Bob tries to calm and comfort, the dynamics within the family emerge. At the same time, we learn a little about the terrified, disoriented Somali community. During the initial hearings, shopkeeper Abdikarim glimpses the true Zach and tries to help him.

As for the characters, I heartily disliked the person that everyone else admires. I think Strout intended that, and part of my satisfaction with the novel is about how that turns out.

Strout’s rich, detailed exposition is matched by her empathy for all her characters. Although I disliked some of them, they are complex and deeply human. This apparently simple story wisely examines the dynamics of guilt, family tensions, social isolation, and blind political correctness.

Life in the small Maine town seems gray and dismal at first, brightened only by the fall foliage and the hues of Somali garments. Jim and Bob have fled, and Susan and Zach are unhappy. There is little employment or hope for the residents. By the end of the novel, everyone has a little more hope.