The good news is that in January I read two books with exclamation points in the titles: Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout and Long Live the Post Horn! by Vigdis Hjorth. It really is too bad how uncommon exclamation-pointed titles are, so what a delight to get to begin the year with two, the bright emphatic marks little flashlights in the winter gloom. It’s possible that there really is no connection between these books beside their punctuation; unless, of course, we want there to be, and, as I see it, we may as well want there to be, don’t you think? From what I can tell, both books can be summed up by that beautiful, Möbius strip of a statement by David Foster Wallace: “Although of course you end up becoming yourself,” with the likenesses and differences of the stories dipping and wrapping through that theme.
To begin, there are the easy similarities: both stories are told in the first person by female narrators who are writers. Lucy Barton of William! is a novelist and Ellinor of Post Horn! writes copy for a public relations firm. Both live in big cities (New York City and Oslo), both are, at least part of the time, unraveling a mystery, and both have distant mother figures, though Lucy’s situation is quite a bit more complicated. Ellinor feels detached from hers in a run-of-the-mill way that still involves some worry and love, but Ellinor is distracted from all interpersonal relationships by her sudden realization that life is a stagnant bog, nothing more. Lucy, perhaps being older, perhaps just being a different person altogether, is not as aghast at life as Ellinor is. For example, while Lucy celebrates the to-ing and fro-ing of a crowded city, Ellinor only finds Oslo drab, full of “shapeless and hideously dressed people with strands of hair sticking out from under their hats…their faces grey.”
And there is the loneliness (always, isn’t there?) that each reacts to in her own way. Lucy holds the shards of her loneliness carefully and with a kind of grace that allows light to glint off them. She doesn’t pretend to not feel lonely, but she is gentle toward herself and toward others, and she sees that being alone, as she most often is, isn’t the only cause of loneliness: “People are lonely, is my point here. Many people can’t say to those they know well what it is they feel they might want to say.” Ellinor doesn’t so much face her loneliness as peep at it with sidelong, panicked glances. Above all she wants to protect herself from herself: “I could see he was tired and I wanted him to leave, but if he left, what would I be left alone with?”
Ellinor feels this fissuring from others and from herself strongly. She laments being a “letter with an incomplete address, a letter with no contents.” She regrets not even being “on first-name terms with myself, so to speak.” Over on the other side of the Atlantic, Lucy, even though she is rather more self-possessed, is also wondering how anyone possibly knows themselves or anyone else: “But again, my point! My point is: What is it that William knew about me and that I knew about him that caused us to get married?”
And so, both are muddling along through the existential precipitation when each is presented with a mystery that inverts their umbrellas with an exclamatory gust, leaving them a little winded and exposed to the elements but more alert and ready to dig in, knuckle down, persevere.
The mysteries are, at least initially, of opposing natures: one involves a baffling new life to come to terms with when Lucy learns that her ex-husband has a sister he’s not known of for seven decades; the other involves the abrupt absence of a life when Ellinor’s longtime colleague disappears and then is found drowned near his boat in a French port. In both narratives, they follow their leads northward. Lucy finds herself in Maine, and Ellinor in Finnmark, up in the very tip top of Norway. In these northern realms they both rummage around in their souls for a while, and come away knowing themselves—even if just by a hair—better.
The two women have most likely never met, but Lucy’s closing remarks would probably be of great comfort to Ellinor, who, toward the end of the story, realizes, “I had a hunch that life had taught other people lessons and that it would do me good to talk to them.” Lucy remarks, Oh, Lucy! so tenderly she remarks:
But when I think Oh William!, don’t I mean Oh Lucy! too?
Don’t I mean Oh Everyone, Oh dear Everybody in this whole wide world, we do not know anybody, not even ourselves!
Except a little tiny, tiny bit we do.