The most unlikely thing about Lucy Barton, previously seen in Elizabeth Strout’s novels My Name Is Lucy Barton and Anything Is Possible, is how much she loves New York, where she has lived for decades. Returning to the city by plane in Oh William!, she looks out of the window and feels “what I have almost always felt when I have flown into New York, and that was a sense of awe and gratitude that this huge, sprawling place had taken me in”. Yet the Amgash series that Oh William! belongs to is named after the small Illinois farm town where Lucy grew up in “terribly bleak poverty” with harsh and sometimes abusive parents. That’s how hard it is – impossible, really – to shake off your roots. “I have never fully understood the whole class business in America,” Lucy observes, a blind spot she shares with much of the nation, although she blames it on coming “from the very bottom of it, and when that happens it never really leaves you”. Most people think of New York as a challenging place to live, but as far as the gentle, easily frightened Lucy is concerned, the Big Apple has nothing on Amgash.
When the book opens, Lucy, at 63, is a successful novelist, well known enough that mentioning her name to a small-town librarian results in a request to sign a stack of books at the front desk on the way out. The library is in Maine, where Lucy has agreed to travel with her ex-husband, the titular William. Both of them are at a late-life crossroads. Lucy’s beloved second husband has died a few weeks earlier, and William’s third wife has left him. What brings them to Maine, however, is the recent revelation, through an ancestry research service, that William has a half-sister, an infant his mother abandoned when she left her first husband for his father. This half-sister still lives in the hamlet where William’s mother grew up, a place that reminds Lucy of Amgash in its provincial isolation. (It isn’t on the quaint, lovely coast of Maine familiar to tourists, but an inland region that a friend of mine’s daughter, when sent to school there, described as “the frozen potato fields of the north”.)
Oh William! has less to do with the discovery of this half-sister than with the nature of Lucy and William’s relationship. They share two grown daughters and the sort of deep friendship that ex-partners are sometimes able to achieve. At the beginning of the novel, William tells Lucy he has been having a kind of night terror, in which he detects the lowering presence of his late mother, Catherine. He comforts himself, he explains, by remembering that if he really needs to he can call Lucy, no matter the hour. Later in the novel, Lucy mentions offhandedly that when she was a very young wife and feeling lonely in the city, she sometimes succumbed to the impulse to call her mother – collect, from a payphone – back in Amgash. Her flinty parents, obscurely offended by Lucy’s marriage, did not attend her wedding, and her mother refused to accept Lucy’s call, telling the operator: “That girl has money now and she can spend it.”
In contrast to her 2008 Pulitzer prize-winning novel, Olive Kitteridge, and its recent sequel, Olive, Again, which are written in a more conventional literary style, the Strout novels narrated by Lucy have the apparent artlessness of conversation or diary entries. Lucy seems to ramble from one topic to another; mentions a character, announces she doesn’t want to “talk” about him, then brings him up again; finishes statements with “I guess” or “I suppose”. Descriptions are simple, kept to a minimum and feel like spontaneous asides, as when Lucy mentions that William’s third wife, Estelle, has “kind of wild brownish red hair which I’ve always liked”. Lucy uses very little figurative language, and when she does apply it, like most diarists, it’s to describe emotional states – “pings” of hurt, or the “dull disc of dread in my chest” during her marriage to William, when she felt that he was “unavailable”. The effect is a confiding intimacy, as if the reader were catching up with an old friend in a particularly confessional mood. At the same time it invites the reader to speculate on what isn’t being told and what the speaker doesn’t even realise she is telling you. The wandering structure belies a tight underlying web of recurring motifs: phone calls, unappreciated gifts, road trips.
In this way, Strout sneaks up on profundity. Oh William! is partly a novel about the layers of feeling that accumulate between people over many years; the emotional panorama that becomes visible only with age. “William has always been a mystery to me,” Lucy observes, “and to our girls as well.” During their marriage, he cheated on her with a number of women; this is why she left him. Estelle leaves him because, she explains in a note, she finds him “unreachable”. “I have no idea if you are any more unreachable than the rest of us,” Lucy tells William when he asks if this is true, “because it was the nicest thing I knew to say.”
This is also a novel about class, an American taboo, the denial of which contributes to making Strout’s characters unknowable to each other. Lucy, who grew up in a house that was without a television or indoor plumbing, freaked out when William’s mother took the family to a resort in the Cayman Islands. “I had no idea – no idea at all – what to do: how to use the hotel key, what to wear to the pool, how to sit by the pool.” When she later describes feeling chronically “invisible”, she blames this in part on the fact that her family owned only one tiny mirror, kept out of reach of the children, who had no idea what they looked like. The world Lucy has escaped to, while bigger, brighter and warmer, nevertheless can provide her with no reflection of her earliest self. Or can it? The miraculous quality of Strout’s fiction is the way she opens up depths with the simplest of touches, and this novel ends with the assurance that the source of love lies less in understanding than in recognition – although it may take a lifetime to learn the difference.
• Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout is published by Viking (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.