Class divisions inflict lifelong scars in Elizabeth Strout’s fiction, especially when the psychic damage is not acknowledged.
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Elizabeth Strout; illustration by Alain Pilon
At one point in Elizabeth Strout’s 2016 novel My Name Is Lucy Barton, the narrator, a successful writer living in Manhattan, recalls the time she was introduced at her wedding reception by her elegant mother-in-law, Catherine. Speaking to one of the guests, Catherine said, “This is Lucy. Lucy comes from nothing.” It was true, if a bit indelicate. Lucy can remember foraging for food in garbage cans with a cousin outside her small hometown of Amgash, Illinois, and those memories still have the power to wound in Strout’s new novel, Oh William!, in which a considerably older Lucy thinks of children on the school playground pinching their noses and saying, “Your family stinks.” Material squalor was matched by cultural deprivation (no books, magazines, or TV) and emotional starvation. “I have no memory,” Lucy recalls, “of my mother ever touching any of her children except in violence.” Her father, a World War II veteran with uncontrollable sexual urges, used to walk around the house masturbating and, during sex with his wife, emit “horrifying, appalling high-pitched sounds.” As for her siblings, “we were equally friendless and equally scorned, and we eyed each other with the same suspicion with which we eyed the rest of the world.”
Compared with her brother, who lives alone in the isolated house they grew up in and still reads children’s books, Lucy appears to have escaped her damaged childhood through the vocation of writing. Books had comforted her when she was growing up, “and I thought: I will write and people will not feel so alone!” An affluent writer in middle age, with two grown daughters, she can now travel in first class, “where they give you the little kit of toothpaste and a toothbrush and a mask to put over your eyes.” She wears perfume, inspired by Catherine, who always “smelled good.” Still, there are moments, she says, when “I am suddenly filled with the knowledge of darkness so deep that a sound might escape from my mouth.”
Oh William! is Strout’s third book of fiction to feature Lucy Barton. In the second, Anything Is Possible (2017), in which Lucy returns to her hometown after a gap of seventeen years, her siblings rub her face in the sordid details of her past—the constant hunger, ostracism by peers, the sex-mad father. Lucy—visiting on a book tour—responds in a “loud and wobbly” voice, “It was not that bad,” and runs away to her posh hotel in Chicago. She is older and seems more resilient in Oh William!, but the past still gnaws at her, and it grows more importunate as William, her first husband, seeks her help in finding a stepsister he never knew.
Much of the new novel describes their journey together to Maine, also the setting of Strout’s two interconnected novels about an irascible retired schoolteacher, Olive Kitteridge (2008) and Olive, Again (2019). In this “oldest, whitest state in the union,” among the “almost-falling-down houses, and lots of stars on the sides of these houses for veterans, gold stars for the ones who were dead,” and the “signs that said Pray for America,” Lucy starts to panic.
She discovers that the stylish, golf-playing Catherine has concealed her own origins, as well as the fact that she abandoned a daughter from a previous marriage. As the spurned daughter bluntly describes it, Catherine, abused by her father and with an alcoholic mother and a brother who died young in prison, “came from less than nothing. She came from trash.”
“The word was like a slap across my face,” Lucy says. “That word is always like a slap across my face.” For she has spent all her adult life fearing that judgment on herself while privately acknowledging its truth; her psychiatrist tells her that she wears perfume “because you think you stink.”
Clarice Lispector, a writer who was elevated by marriage and writerly success to the bourgeoisie in her adopted country, Brazil, but remained emotionally trapped in her deprived childhood (her parents were refugees from Ukraine), dedicated her last book, The Hour of the Star (1977), to “the memory of my former poverty”; she writes in it that “my truest life is unrecognizable, extremely interior and there is not a single word that defines it.”* Lucy, too, despairs of communicating her central experience of the world to her readers. “I have never fully understood the whole class business in America, though,” she says in Oh William!, “because I came from the very bottom of it, and when that happens it never really leaves you. I mean I have never really gotten over it, my beginnings, the poverty, I guess is what I mean.”
The “I guess” is characteristic of Lucy’s creator, who recoils in Oh William!, as she has in her other books, from robust assertion. Yet Strout, who grew up in small-town Maine and did not start publishing books until she was in her forties, seems never less than convinced in all of her eight works of fiction that class divisions inflict lifelong scars, especially when the psychic damage is not openly acknowledged. She shows how her characters’ pasts continually shape, and deform, their behavior in the present. In Anything Is Possible, we meet Lucy Barton’s cousin Dottie, who in sixth grade was put on display in front of her class in her stained dress and “told that no one was ever too poor to buy sanitary pads.” Dottie still expects to be watched with suspicion in shops and thrown out, even though she stopped being poor long ago. Running a bed-and-breakfast in middle age, she is driven to coarsely disproportionate vengeance by the slightly dismissive manner of two guests, a doctor and his snootily self-absorbed wife: