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Anything Is Possible

Review

Anything Is Possible

Describing Elizabeth Strout's novel, MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON, Washington Post fiction editor Ron Charles called it the work of a "mature writer, scaling new heights." In her New York Times review of the book, novelist Claire Messud used terms like "powerful" and "exquisite" to laud it. That lavish praise was representative of the 2016 novel's overwhelmingly favorable critical reception.

Considering that they were writing about an author with a Pulitzer Prize already to her credit for OLIVE KITTERIDGE, the 2008 novel-in-stories about life in small-town Maine, that acclaim is impressive. The good news for Strout's readers is that her new collection of linked stories, ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE, maintains that high standard. But what will be even more pleasing to fans of LUCY BARTON will be the news that Strout brings her back to life in this new work, a collection of revealing and emotionally potent character studies focused on the lives of people from the small Illinois towns in which Lucy's life was rooted.

Set in the present, some 30 years after the events of LUCY BARTON, the nine stories share an emotional sensibility and an understated tone. Strout has mastered the linked story form, and the subtlety with which she orchestrates the connections between her characters across the individual stories inevitably will encourage rereading. She doesn't depart from classic short fiction technique, and to the extent there is any drama here, most of it occurs offstage.

"Strout has mastered the linked story form, and the subtlety with which she orchestrates the connections between her characters across the individual stories inevitably will encourage rereading."

Strout is more interested in mining the interior lives of her characters, something she does with cool precision tempered by unfailing empathy. That's true whether she's depicting a school counselor living in the aftermath of her husband's death that ended a sexually barren relationship, or that woman's sister, whose complicity in the misdeeds of her wealthy, but deeply troubled, spouse threatens the survival of their superficially desirable life.

Portraits of characters like these are responsible for the mood of melancholy that permeates the book. Mary Mumford, the septuagenerian protagonist of "Mississippi Mary," living out the final years of her life in a squalid Italian flat with a husband 20 years her junior after divorcing her first husband of 51 years, concludes that "life had worn her out, worn her down." Reflecting on her extended encounter with a guest --- the timid wife of an overbearing physician --- at her bed and breakfast, its owner Dottie concludes that the woman "suffered only from the most common complaint of all: Life had simply not been what she thought it would be."

Those descriptions would fit most of the characters living in Lucy's hometown of Amgash or its neighboring communities. Whether it's Tommy Guptill, a school custodian who lost his dairy farm in a long-ago fire and now sees in that catastrophe a "sign from God"; Charlie Macauley, a Vietnam veteran suffering from PTSD who's turned to regular visits to an extortionate prostitute for comfort; or Lucy's brother Pete, living in isolation in the ramshackle family farmhouse, all seem to be struggling to free themselves from some wreckage of the past. Now they and the other characters in these stories gaze out at foreshortened horizons, cursed to live with the lingering belief that somehow life didn't have to turn out this way.

With the exception of one story, Lucy herself is present only in allusions to her and her work by other characters. We learn she has published a memoir and has been on a book tour; its Chicago stop provides the impetus for her to return to Amgash --- where she and her family were best known for their impoverished existence --- for the first time since the death of her father 17 years earlier.

The awkward reunion that visit prompts is the subject of the story "Sister." In a tension-filled scene in the living room of her brother's house, Lucy has to face her sister Vicky's accusation about the reason for her long absence that "You didn't come here because you didn't want to," and finds herself giving the only honest answer she can to that charge.

As would be the case with any work so closely tied to an earlier one, readers will wonder if it's necessary to have read MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON before picking up this work. Despite their intimate connection, the answer clearly is no. That said, many readers who come first to this collection undoubtedly will want to read the novel, if only because of their reluctance to leave the world Strout has so artfully brought to life.

And perhaps they'll share the sentiment of Patty Nicely, the school counselor protagonist of the story "Windmills," who concludes that Lucy Barton's memoir "had understood her." That hardly would be a surprise.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on April 28, 2017

Anything Is Possible
by Elizabeth Strout

  • Publication Date: April 25, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Random House
  • ISBN-10: 0812989406
  • ISBN-13: 9780812989403