Oh William!


Every baby boomer should read this book.

Getting old is weird, in ways they never told you about. Sure, you regret the time you wasted. And you know so much more but nobody wants to listen to you. But the most revelatory thing is you just don’t care. It happens almost overnight. Suddenly you realize all those games people play, the so-called winners and losers, they no longer give you a shot of adrenaline, you’re no longer invested, you know at the end of the day they’re irrelevant and…on one hand you feel empty, because the secret of life has been exposed to you and no one cares, and on the other you feel liberated. And the truth is you can fight this feeling, but you can never beat it. It’s something in the bones, in the DNA, you hit a certain point and your perspective changes no matter what you did previously. The funniest thing is seeing people try to hold on to what they had, fearful of looking bad, not knowing that nobody is really paying attention anymore.

Not that you can’t achieve in your old age. Elizabeth Strout published her first book, “Amy and Isabelle,” in 1998, when she was 42. Her age, her experience, have given her wisdom, and she writes so well about the odd, the disenfranchised, the different, which so many of us are, even though we might try to hide it.

So the truth is almost all baby boomers have been divorced. We were sold a bill of goods in the sixties and seventies, telling us we could meet our soulmate and have it all when that is patently untrue. As a matter of fact, if you meet someone who utters this garbage ignore them, two people getting along is incredibly difficult, and if the couple professes endless love with no disagreements that just means one partner has the power and the other accedes to his or her wishes. If you’re not fighting, you’re not in a good relationship.

Now today the educated marry the educated and stay together while the uneducated often don’t get married at all, they have babies out of wedlock, oftentimes with multiple partners, and they do their best to ensure they stay members of the underclass. I’m quoting statistics, not feelings, but you can argue with me anyway. And there are exceptions to every rule, not that anything can be gray anymore.

So it was Strout’s third book, “Olive Kitteridge,” that was her monumental breakthrough. It was shot into the stratosphere when it became an HBO miniseries, starring the incredible Frances McDormand, but I couldn’t watch it, because it didn’t square with the vision I had in my head, and Strout’s books are personal, for the reader only, and when depicted on screen they inherently lose something, small stories become well known and this isn’t the way life works.

But every Strout book is good, she’s the Pixar of novels. And she gets her due, but I’m surprised even more people don’t read her books, because they’re so fulfilling, you don’t want them to end.

Not that they’re a huge commitment. In a few pages you’re hooked and you don’t need to read with a dictionary and although there’s tons of plot, there is tons of wisdom too, Strout’s books are what the graduate writing schools should hold up as their model, instead they produce self-conscious turgid works where the words supersede the plot and the only people who read them are the cognoscenti who keep this system alive.

They can’t study Strout, they believe she’s beneath them, she makes it seem effortless. But the best work is not always highbrow.

So what you’ve got here is a divorced couple. With two adult children. And the wife’s second spouse dies and the husband ends up single again and they interact.

Now in a conventional romance book they’d get back together, all lovey-dovey, but that’s not how the world works. William still bugs Lucy, but they share so much history, they were married all those years, never mind having those kids, so…

They’re on the downhill side of life and end up interacting again.

William continues to work. But is his self-worth and identity caught up in his work? And how good was he at it really?

As for Lucy…she comes from nothing and can never get over it. She always feels she’s out of the loop, doesn’t know something, and in truth she’s never felt fully comfortable in a love relationship, she’s made them work, her second husband was nice, but to say they were soulmates would be a stretch. As for William, can he ever open up, can he ever be known? This is common amongst men. They can talk all day yet reveal nothing. You hear their truth in stolen moments if you hear it at all. And they get to the end of their lives and they wonder if they missed it, played it wrong.

Also, so many are putting up a front. They may look together, but they grew up poor and isolated. And every family has secrets, things they don’t want people to know, that they sometimes keep from other family members. And…

I don’t want to tell you any more.

But you’ll learn more about life reading “Oh William!” than watching the Beatles miniseries. Not that they should be equated. Well, let’s just say that reading “Oh William!” is like listening to a late period Beatles album, maybe the White Album. It’s a personal experience, it sets your mind free, you’re in a private space, thinking about life. That’s what great art does, and that’s what people are looking for. Which is why Strout is so successful, why her every book is a best seller, because people hunger for this feeling and fulfillment. Facts are interesting, feelings are life.

Every boomer will dig this book, and many others too. If you’re willing to reflect, question your behavior and desires, you’ll be stimulated by reading “Oh William!”

Not that reading a book is as easy as watching TV or listening to a record, but when done right it’s a unique experience, that you cannot get anywhere else, that resonates so. Check out “Oh William!”

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