Have you ever read a book that within the first few pages you sigh and settle deeper into your chair? A book that is so comforting, and sustaining, that reading it makes you feel like coming home? Maybe the book doesn’t have to be comforting right away. But reading it draws you into the lives of the characters so skillfully, that you feel as if you are having a conversation. With an old friend, or your mum, or someone close. And when you’re talking with someone that close, the conversation always feels like a homecoming.

I feel that when I read books by Elizabeth Strout. I love how how her stories ramble, and circle around, and edge forward almost sideways, like a crab. She deals with the present, reaches back into the past, and then moves the present forward again. Like a conversation with someone you know well, when you start off down one path, remember something from your past, or their past, or a shared past, and tell a story, which leads to another story, before circling back to the original topic. Except in real life you sometimes never do make it back to the original topic of conversation.

But in fiction, of course, the writer is in charge, and Elizabeth Strout always brings the plot back to her original topic. But with so much skill that it mimics real life. And the reader doesn’t even notice that they are being lead along.

Wildflowers and trees along the cart path, that runs up the hill and beside the old fence line on the farm in New Brunswick.
Summer on the old farm.
Krista Buell photo

I just finished Elizabeth Strout’s latest book Oh William! which I ordered months ago, and delayed and delayed reading. I wasn’t in the mood for a serious book, I told myself. It would make me sad, I told myself, and I wasn’t in the right frame of mind for that. So I read only mystery and crime for a long while. Until the other day. Gad. What was I thinking? I adored this book. Like I adored her last one. And the one before that. How silly of me to put off reading this wonderful book.

Oh William! continues the story of Strout’s character Lucy Barton. As the narrator, Lucy purports to be telling us the story of her first husband William. And of course she is. But she’s also continuing her own story. And the story of her and William’s marriage, and of their children. Oh William! is one of those rambling books, shuttling down the plotline sidewise, with numerous forays into Lucy’s past, and William’s past, and even the past of William’s mother. In it Elizabeth Strout explores themes of identity, as she often does. And the complex web of situations, heredity, and events from which our identity is formed. And how even when we think our adult identity is formed, and that we are far from who we were as children, we are never actually very far from the child that we once were.

Late February day looking across the fields at home.
Late February at home.

Elizabeth Strout has three books featuring Lucy Barton as a character. The first book, My Name is Lucy Barton, starts with Lucy narrating the story of her long hospital stay when she was a young mother. And how William, her husband at the time, contacted Lucy’s mother, from whom she’d been estranged for many years, and flew her from the midwest to New York to be with Lucy in the hospital. For five days Lucy’s mother sits by her bed and they talk.

And in between Lucy narrates to the reader the story of her early life, her childhood, and her escape from poverty when she won a scholarship to a college in Chicago. College is the beginning of Lucy’s life, the beginning of her development as an adult, and as a writer. She says: “Oh, I loved that place immediately, silently, breathlessly!” Just like I loved this book right from the start. Just like I did Oh William!.

I think my favourite part of My Name is Lucy Barton is when Lucy is a child and stays at school long after everyone has gone home, so she can keep warm. A kindly janitor conspires to let her into empty classrooms where the radiators are still on, and she does her homework and reads books until she can no longer delay going home herself. And the part I love the best is when she says how much she loves books and wants to write books when she grows up: “the books brought me things. This is my point. They made me feel less alone. This is my point. And I thought: I will write and people will not feel so alone!”

My Name is Lucy Barton goes beyond the five days that Lucy’s mother sat by her side in the hospital. And far beyond the weeks she spends in the hospital. And in the book we are there with her as she comes to terms, as much as is possible, with her childhood, and with her parents. Viewing them down the lens of an adult instead of a child, but still retaining the feel of the pain felt by the child. It’s the most difficult of the three books to read because Lucy did have a dreadful childhood. But it’s a worthwhile read, I think.

The second Elizabeth Strout book in which we encounter Lucy Barton is Anything is Possible, which is a series of connected short stories about the people in Lucy Barton’s hometown of Amgash, Illinois. Lucy, who is a famous novelist by this time, is mentioned in several of the chapters, but appears herself in only one chapter of the book when she returns home to visit her sister and brother. I wrote about this book here, if you’re interested. I remember so clearly reading this book when I was at home with my mum. And such was the power of the book that I was loath to put it down even though Mum and I had things to do, tea to drink, Jane Austen movies to watch together, and many conversations to have.

Anyway. If you haven’t read these Elizabeth Strout books, I highly recommend them. As you’ve probably already guessed.

November sunset on the Saint John River.
November sunset on the Saint John River at home.

Oh William! set me off on a search the other night. A search for a family that I remembered from my childhood. They lived near us and several of the children rode with us on the school bus. I remember one red-headed girl a year or two older than me, an older brother, and a much younger one. I remember their names. The fact that they lived in an old house on a hill that we could barely see from the road, with no indoor plumbing. And the fact that they were dreadfully bullied at school. For having lice, for smelling bad, for whatever insults kids in the schoolyard could dream up.

I called my mum today to see if she remembered the family. She did. And I asked her if she remembered the day I came home from school and told her that no one would sit with the girl on the school bus. She did. Mum also remembered that, the next day, I sat with this girl. Because Mum had threatened me if I didn’t, she would find out, and I would be in trouble. She said this girl could not help her situation. And I was no better than she was, and I should never think otherwise.

Funny, I never, ever forgot that girl. And reading Oh William! made me remember that story. And thus, the other night, I went on a search across Google and Facebook to see if I could find that family. I won’t say anymore because I don’t want anyone to recognize whom I am speaking about. But the line “she came from nothing” in Strout’s novel resonated with me so strongly. And despite the fact that my own childhood was somewhat turbulent, and filled at times with anxiety, I know that I really did win the birth lottery.

That’s why I say reading Elizabeth Strout’s books make me feel like coming home. Because home for me is inextricably linked to stories. And story-telling. Because by telling stories and listening to stories we are seeking to know ourselves and each other.

You know, we’re all trying to navigate our lives as best we can. Trying to understand who we are. And why. Even as grown-ups. Even at age almost sixty-six. And it’s kind of wonderful to think that real-life author Elizabeth Strout achieves what the fictional girl Lucy Barton hoped to achieve. To write books and make people feel less alone.

Even as we know that what we are reading is fiction. And that as Strout says, “we do not know anybody, not even ourselves,” we keep trying to know. Telling our stories to each other. Reading stories, listening to stories. And recognizing that we are not alone in that unknowing.

And that makes me feel less alone.

Now, how about you, my friends? What nourishing books have you been reading lately? Does story-telling figure largely in your life?

P.S. The book links in this post are affiliate links. If you make a purchase after clicking my link, I will earn a commission which helps to pay for the blog.


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53 thoughts on “When Reading Feels Like Coming Home”

  1. Oh my….what a review! I love Elizabeth Strout and I read “Oh William!” so quickly that I felt totally captivated with her writing.Thinking about it now makes me feel nostalgic and in a mood for reminiscing.
    I have been disappointed with my book reading choices of late,especially “The Lincoln Highway” by Amor Towles – too long and an unfulfilling ending.I am in need of some books that make me feel.Any more suggestions please?
    Thanks so much for a wonderful and well written review.

  2. This is a love story to Elizabeth Strout indeed! And to your wonderful and compassionate Mum!
    I resonate with your feelings about books
    I’ve read and loved My Name is LB….and I have Oh, William waiting to touch my heart (and now I have to read Anything is Possible,too!)
    I’ve just written about books I’ve read at Materfamilias writes but Nita Prose’s The Maid reminds me to your neighbours-from completely different reasons-but,I loved this book and,wanted to help Molly The Maid all the time while reading.
    When you choose to read mysteries again ,maybe you haven’t read Henning Mankel’s The Fifth Woman ( Inspector Wallander series)-it is very interesting and a real page-turner

    1. I just ordered The Maid from the library based on your rec over on Frances’ site. Thanks for that. I haven’t read that particular Henkel Manning either. I’ll go check it out. Between you and Frances, and the rest of the readers here, I am well set up for reading for the rest of the winter.

      1. I’ve reserved The Maid at the library and can take no credit for introducing it here. That’s all Dottoressa. Good to hear another vote for the book too, Sandra.

        1. that’s it, now I have to request The Maid from the library….and re-read My Name is Lucy Barton and Anything is Possible while I’m waiting for Oh! William.
          beautiful post, Sue. you expressed so many of the things I feel when reading, far better than I ever could

    1. Ah, thanks, Cosette. I deleted your second comment. There was a comment issue on my blog this morning. Comments weren’t publishing properly, but I was able to see them both, so I assumed that you wanted to only comment once.

  3. Dear Sue, I just want to say Thank you for all your lovely blogs. It’s like listening to an old friend. I love the contrast of our home towns ,I live in an old apartment in a Victorian house built 1870 overlooking the sea near Brighton U K . I too adore reading, all sorts , I hop from seriously well written to light romance ,pop into a thriller and then into a more meaningful read. My books mostly come from charity shops ( thrift stores ) so I can’t always read the “ latest “ but I don’t mind. I have always found time to read , even with five children to bring up, including twins born when my then youngest was two years old, that was a busy time but still time for a quick few pages! Now they are all grownup with their own families and I and my husband are both well retired so I can really relax into reading for hours. My latest favourite is “Bel Canto” by Ann Patchett
    Lovely and really absorbing , see if you can find it. Enjoy your books . Best wishes Judy Sparks

    1. Stouts Pulitzer Prize book Olive Kitteridge is a favorite of mine, along with Olive, Again, and the Burgess Boys. I find myself thinking of the characters afterwards, when the book is back on the shelf.

  4. A beautifully written piece Sue . You’ve got me wondering what happened to that family you mentioned . What a great attitude your mum had . I’m also an Elizabeth Strout fan . I think Olive is my favourite character but Lucy is excellent too . I’m looking forward to reading ‘ Oh William ‘ . She’s such an insightful writer & I agree that novelists can have us exploring our own feelings & how we relate to other people . I enjoy good autobiographies & memoirs for the same reason . By good I mean open & honest . I’m currently working my way through Emma Smith’s books . She hasn’t written many & I’m loving them all . They are either memoirs or semi memoirs & she writes so well .
    PS I have The Maid reserved at the library – good to know Dottoressa enjoyed it .

    1. Thanks, Wendy. I’ve always wondered about those kids too. Just looked up Emma Smith. I am off to see if I can find them on Kindle. Thanks!
      P.S. I also have The Maid reserved at the library. Ha. Dottoressa’s a big book influencer. 🙂

  5. Oh, Sue – I cannot get these books on my Audible list soon ENOUGH now – you make them sound SO appealing, and I know I will not be disappointed. You are probably the single biggest influence on my reading list these days 🙂 The story about the girl from your childhood makes me think of the terribly poor children I went to school with and how I could’ve been so much nicer to them. I’ve often wanted to look them up and apologize. I’d love to hear “the rest of the story”, but also admire you protecting their privacy. Your posts like this continue to inspire me as to the things I hope my blog could be one day. Thank YOU!!!

    1. Thanks for the very kind words, MK. 🙂 And speaking of Audible, I am currently listening to the Anthony Horowitz books and enjoying them. Listening to A Line to Kill at the moment.

  6. Victoria Gigliotti

    Read all of Elizabeth Stout’s books. Loved them all. Right now i am read Greenwood by Canadian author Michael Chistie. Thoroughly enjoying it and losing myself in it’s story.

  7. I had not heard of Elizabeth Strout until I read your review of Anything is Possible. I read it and found it absorbing and fascinating but realized that My Name is Lucy Barton should have been read first to set the stage. Got my hands on that then went and re read AIP again! Now I am ready for Oh William!
    I come from a family of story tellers but as an adult ( with internet/Google) I now know that a veil was dropped at certain points in the narrative of my history. My brothers and I have found the chapters that were dropped probably due to racism and/or embarrassment… we have found an interesting pedigree that had been kept from us. It’s the ‘untold’ stories that are the most interesting.
    I hope the neighbour children of your youth moved on to good lives. Perhaps their home life was not as ‘poor’ as you assumed. Were they beaten and abused? Or was it simply their poverty that lead you to believe they had an unhappy life? We must always be careful when looking through a ‘privileged’ lens at the lives of others. Your mother’s words were very wise.

    1. Hope you enjoy Oh William! I’m not sure that I even believed that the kids of whom I was speaking grew up to have unhappy lives. But they were certainly poor, and they were quite unhappy (and I think lonely) at school. My mum was from a big family that worked hard and was not wealthy. She never viewed the world through the lens of material privilege, and strove that we wouldn’t do so either.

  8. I will try to find the Strout books you spoke of here. I’m 80 and loved your Mums advice to sit next to the poor little girl on the bus. I’d probably really like your Mum, she sounds like a sweetheart. Best regards , Annette

  9. I love, love, love everything Elizabeth Strout has written. Olive Kitteridge, etc., Amy and Isabelle, The Burgess boys…so many. She is one of my favorite authors along with Nicole Krause, Ann Patchett, Jane Austen! They have never disappointed me. Thank you Sue for all of your wonderful reading suggestions and your readers who also inspire.

  10. Thanks for the recommendations. I’m reading mysteries mainly but nothing too violent. I went to The Materfamilias site yesterday to see what she had read in 2021. So many new books to read. Years ago I read Tender is the Night by Fitzgerald and I loved it. It made me want to travel to France and take my children there. She had an entirely different take on it and saw things I didn’t see. Sometimes we miss a lot when we read, especially when we’re young. You were mentioned quite a bit by her readers as one who had great book recommendations. I do so appreciate the both of you.

    1. I remember when I read Tender Is the Night back in the 80s … and how much I loved it. It set me off on a whole F. Scott Fitzgerald journey and then every other 1920s writer I could find. Hemingway, Ford Maddox Ford etc etc

  11. I recently enjoyed Oh William! too. In Oh William!, I especially liked how the story of Lucy’s mother-in-law developed. I now want to reread My Name is Lucy Barton. And I am hoping for a future book about Lucy’s second marriage. I also enjoyed Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge books.

    1. I really enjoyed that part too, Nancy. And how Catherine’s comment of “she came from nothing” began to resonate in a whole other way once we knew the truth about her. That whole trip to Maine was a wonderful part of the book.

  12. I have loved all of Elizabeth Strout’s books, but you are so much better at putting the reasons into words!
    I’ve recently read Crow Lake and A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson, similar wonderful storytelling that makes you feel you’re there. I couldn’t put them down but didn’t want them to end!

    1. I’m so happy you liked Mary Lawson as much as I did. I’d love to meet her characters in real life. I mean if they were real people. Ha. Especially the baby Bo in Crow Lake. I loved the scenes of her as a child playing with the pots and how she then grew up to be a cook!

  13. I loved Olive and Olive, again. Two books I have just finished (which were also your recommendation) are Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club and The Man Who Died Twice. Warmly written and entertaining. So glad I learned about them here.

  14. I’ve been hearing such good things about Elizabeth Strout’s writing for years and never read one. I need to do so. You’ve written about them so appealingly and I love how you tied them to your own childhood experiences. What a lovely post.
    You reminded me of some of the children I grew up with. There was a lot of poverty around me. Kids were not starving that I know of, but there were extreme conditions. As you say, it was difficult to be different. Kids can be hard on each other.
    I am reading Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan series and she writes of growing up in a poor part of Naples. Conditions were harsh for the main characters.
    I’m so glad that you write about books and in such a thoughtful way. I feel like I have a little book club experience when you have a book post and I can read your words and everyone’s responses in the comments.

  15. I’m a big Elizabeth Strout fan, and have recently read all 3 LB books (as well as the 2 about Olive). I’ve done A LOT of reading recently and thought I’d recommend a few that I really liked: The Paris Library by Janet Skeslien Charles, This is the Way It Always Is by Laurie Frankel, and The Reading List by Sara Nisha Adams. I’m a life-long reader and can remember exactly when (and the book) I fell in love with reading! I love seeing your reading posts.

  16. After reading several paragraphs of Olive’s encounters, I would need to pause and absorb every detail. One of the few books that I read word for word, wanting it to never end. Olive verbalized all the things that most of us just think to ourselves. Despite being rough around the edges, she had great empathy.

  17. Sue, this is one of the best book reviews that I have ever read. You do have a way….
    Thank you for your always entertaining posts. The comments are also fabulous. I have read a lot of your choices over the years. What am I reading now? Escapism to France stories. Martin Walker books. He writes about a part of France that we know. As we have not been able to return recently, escapism stories are a necessary indulgence. There are murders, but also lovely food, and wine of course. There are books covering most surfaces in this house.

  18. I recently finished Mary Lawson’s Crow Lake, a discovery I made thanks to you, and enjoyed it tremendously. More Mary Lawson is on my list, but I find myself wanting to spread out her books so I don’t run out too quickly!

    Oh William! — I read it a couple of months ago, but I think I would have appreciated it more if I had read My Name Is Lucy Barton more recently. Sometime this year, I plan to reread My Name… and then reread Oh William! right afterward.

    In a totally different vein, I recently finished Elizabeth George’s latest mystery and was completely engrossed in it. Such a treat to have a can’t-put-it-down reading experience with a big fat mystery novel … I’ve been finding that my attention span is often all too short in these pandemic times.

    1. I just finished rereading My Name is Lucy Barton. And I liked it even better the second time, knowing how the whole thing turns out and where Lucy’s life goes. Can’t wait to read that Elizabeth George. I’m saving it for April when I go to my Mum’s.

  19. What have I been reading lately? I just finished the unpublished journal that my father kept for the year and a half that he and mom spent wandering around the backroads of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East in a Volkswagen camper van in the early 1980s. Mom has been gone since 2015 and Dad almost two years now, so this was bittersweet, but also fun. Almost like connecting with them again. It’s also reignited the wanderlust in me which might not be such a good thing considering the recent surge in Covid numbers.

    I stopped by one of our local thrift stores this morning to check the shelves of their cozy book room as I was running short of actual books to read. I definitely hit the jackpot today! Clearly, someone with similar taste in books to my own has been cleaning out their collection because I came home with ten books that I can hardly wait to dive into. The only problem is going to be deciding which one to read first!

  20. A lovely post, Sue, and if I hadn’t just finished these three Lucy Barton books, I’d be hurrying out to get copies. As it is, you’ve reinforced why they will someday deserve a second reading. I see that you were struck by the same recurrent phrase as I was: “she came from nothing” — and I love the anecdote you draw from your schooldays to make a connection with Strout’s characters. And I’m so happy to know your mom is still well enough to hold up her end of a lively and satisfying bookish / reminiscing phone chat. (what a good mom — of course she made you share that seat, a lesson that has obviously rung through the decades, but it wouldn’t have been so easy to do at the time. Brava, both of you!)

    1. Thanks, Frances. Mum and I had such a great conversation the other day. Shorter than in times past because her shoulder and arm are weak from arthritis and she can’t hold the phone for long… and can’t hear clearly when it’s on speaker. But way better than no conversation at all. 🙂

  21. “Because by telling stories and listening to stories we are seeking to know ourselves and each other.” Yes! Thank you. And can I just say your blog fulfills that idea for women who love to read, and put together an outfit, and think about lovely things in life like nature and cups of hot coffee or tea. Your writing is a delight as we seek to know ourselves and others.

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