Oh William! & Vladimir: The wonderful world of books with older women protagonists.

Oh William by Elizabeth Strout

I read Oh William! by Elizabet Stout and Vladimir by Julia May Jonas back-to-back this month and I was enamoured by both. I talked about both books to anyone who’d listen and now I want to share my love for them on my blog, to immortalise them, at least for myself.

Oh William is the story of Lucy and William, a divorced couple who share two daughters in New York. Both have remarried and managed that rare post-divorce relationship and maintained their friendship (which to be fair is more a dependency with Lucy doing most of the work!) The story is narrated by Lucy as she approaches her 70’s and finds herself widowed. She recalls the previous two years of her life, in which she helps William track down a long lost family member, and subsequently recalls her own history and the influences that childhood and family continue to have on her.

I really enjoyed the way Elizabeth Strout wrote the passive aggressive nature of marriage “he blamed me even as he called me sweetheart or made my coffee” How terrible men can be with communication and how forgiving women are with all (ALL) their flaws. I also really liked Lucy’s relationship with her daughter’s, her slightly detached nature, borne from her own childhood and refined as an adult. The honesty and frankness with which she discusses her divorce with her grown daughters, both now married and able to appreciate their parents struggles through their own relationship lenses, whilst also recognising that we don’t ever truly know the experiences of others.

There’s a scene about half way through the book, when Lucy, William and their two grown daughters reunite for an impromptu evening. They have a family hug, like when the girls were young, before leaving, and you can feel the emotions of each of the people, the immense pain of realising that time changes so much, that we also grieve moments that brought us so much joy.

It’s striking how many times Lucy asks William, how he is doing, calls to check up on him, asks how he slept, etc, yet he never reciprocates these questions, he calls her when he needs something. It struck me because again, it reminded me how much women carry silently, how little we expect in return for our continuous caring, how we bury ourselves inside our feelings. Now, at almost 70, Lucy’s reflections strike me as ones that maybe most women feel; that regret of holding back, even to the people we love the most. And then there is the rude awakening of seeing ourselves in another’s eyes.

My favourite thing about this book however, was the power of hindsight it evoked. The recognition that we can’t escape from our formative experiences. That behaviours repeat themselves and if we want to change we need help (shout out to therapy). How a single exchange can take a hold over us, some flippant or mean comment will hover around us and influence us long after the person who made it is of no significance. And sadly it’s only with age that we realise how futile it was to hold on for so long.

I love books that explore familial relationships, particularly over time, when you get an almost birds-eye-view of a life. Both Lucy and William have parents who were affected by the second world war, and both have different traumas they grew up with. Its only with time and distance (and therapy in Lucy’s case) that allow them to develop feelings of sympathy and understanding towards them. Although they both have very different formative experiences and William discovers a secret his late mother kept from him, by knowing what we know about both their parents and their past we can empathise more with the choices they make and the behaviours they exhibit.

I think one of the lessons of Oh William! is that we never truly know another person. William, although very close to his mother, is completely shocked at learning her secret. Lucy only begins to understand her own parents, and her own parenting style after therapy and even their daughters begin to understand the choices their parents made after getting married themselves and seeing them as individuals with histories and lives, before becoming their parents. Its such a great book and absolutely deserves its spot on the Booker longlist.

Vladimir by Julia May Jonas

Vladimir begins with the eponymous character tied to a chair and our nameless protagonist, a women in her 50’s, gazing at his sleeping form. Then the story takes us back to their first meeting, when her infatuation with the new professor began. We learn that she is dealing with the fallout of her husbands sexual misconduct with students at the college they both teach. Unbeknown to the wider world, they have an open relationship, although the wife stopped having extra relationships soon after the birth of their daughter. The couples relationship is fractured but not because of the husbands affairs, she is very philosophical about those, it is from resentments that have grown with time. She is a writer and teaches Women in American Fiction, and through this she shares some of her exchanges with students, and notes how different students are now from when she was one. The younger male professor, Vladimir has recently started working at the college. He has a troubled but beautiful wife and a young daughter. Our protagonist becomes curious about Vladimir and then slightly obsessed with him.

The book deals with a host of controversial issues: Should a woman have to speak out about the actions of her husband? Are college (UK Uni) students who wilfully engage is a sexual relationships with a teacher victims? (The liaisons happened a decade before the book is set and before such relationships were banned) Should we have to publicly defend or condemn another’s actions ? The views our protagonist takes are contentious but at no point do I hate her for it. Although the sexual politics are questionable throughout the book, I think Julia May Jonas has put together a clever and well rounded character, who is able to justify and rationalise her beliefs. She is from the free love generation and her views on sexual liberation were quite refreshing and fun for me. I really liked how messy the people around her were, but still felt comfortable giving advice to her. For example there is an exchange between mother and daughter where the daughter encourages her to leave her cheating husband (her dad) because she doesn’t deserve to be with someone who doesn’t value her, but also due to the optics of the situation. Yet moments earlier we learn she too has cheated on her girlfriend and is desperately working on fixing their relationship. The book deals with these moral issues, but with a protagonist who doesn’t hold conventional ideas about relationships. The fact that she is an older woman, and continuously justifying her choices to much younger women was interesting to me. She wants to make choices that suit her life, as it is now, rather than those that are understandable to the wider world.

It is very rare for me to like an older white female protagonist, as much as I like reading books about them. I’m often rolling my eyes at their choices and never really understand their privileges or circumstances as they are very far removed from my own. But I loved this character. I loved how comfortable she was in her own thinking, if not in her own skin. I liked the confidence her age and experience gave her and how thoughtful she was in responding to people, but she was also flawed, and reminded of her entitlements by a non-white scholarship student. There is a really brilliant exchange with a student, Edwina who has thus far been silent on the scandal, when pushed to comment on it she says “This is a white woman thing. I would do a lot of stupid things if I was allowed, but I don’t have that privilege” Our protagonist retorts that everyone is entitled to experiences and making mistakes and being forgiven, to which Edwina responds “No, they definitely aren’t” and that she doesn’t have the time or the resources to care about this. I loved it so much. I listened to this exchange over and over, because she is absolutely right, and that perspective of a middle aged, middle class white women of “everyone can make mistakes” is one of complete privilege. No, everyone isn’t able to make mistakes and the consequences sure as hell are not the same for all people.

I also appreciated the way the author talked about and dealt with the aging process and the significant role it plays in the lives of women. The many changes a women’s body goes through after childbirth and the obsessions we can develop on any particular part of our bodies, after someone compliments it. From ears, to knees to ankles, a single comment, even by a stranger, can take a hold over a person. The preparation we go through when faced with the possibility of meeting someone, and how age can affect that process. I love reading about women and our struggles and how differently we approach things at various stages of our lives.

I must confess the ending was a bit of a curveball for me, I didn’t expect it but I didn’t hate it either. I won’t go into any spoilers here but I think it was an interesting choice, given how much of the book is about aesthetics. In so many of the books I’ve read recently alcohol plays a key role, and usually in a negative way. To numb pain, to forget mistakes or for good old Dutch courage. As someone who doesn’t drink, I find it fascinating how dependent people are on it, and also how casual our attitudes towards its harmful affects can be.

I have grown up reading books about white women (no I’m not about to rant about diversity) from Alice Hoffman, Anne Tyler, Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson and Ali Smith, and I’ve loved them all. Now reading about the experience of women in the autumn of their lives feels like I’m coming full circle. I think there is a lot of merit in using the older women as the lead character as she has an unrivalled depth that can only come with life and experiences. I can not deny that there are some excellent books with younger protagonist, like Luster, by Raven Leilani for example. And maybe this is more about me as an older reader, I’m 40 next year, but I really loved both these books, they gave me so may opportunities to reflect on my own choices and consider my own opinions and options that books about younger women don’t any longer.

Let me know if you’ve read either of these books and how you found them. Where do you sit on the readers scale of age, do you like younger protagonists or slightly older ones?

I borrowed both these books from my local library as audiobooks and listened to them using the BorrowBox app.


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