Elizabeth Strout's collection of short stories, Anything is Possible, lives up to its title: anything is possible. Those possibilities may not be fairy tale endings in the Disney sense. Still, in this companion piece to Strout's I am Lucy Barton, the battered small town girl of that book is still a famous writer—maybe even more famous, as she is seen through the eyes of her neighbors.
This book is not a sequel, exactly, but a different eyepiece in a kaleidoscope. Strout's genius is her ability to bring us into people's lives one at a time, and in different combination. The characters she creates star in their own stories but bump into each other's orbits as well.
This might not be surprising in the town of Amgash, Illinois, a name that sounds like a self-inflicted wound, but even in the wider world, as these characters find one another. Several go to Vietnam, or to college. A few float in and out of the surrounding countryside. The almost unseen pivot, Lucy Barton, goes all the way to New York City—a location even more alien than Southeast Asia, only to be drawn back to her childhood home.
Yet the people who looked down on Lucy Barton, who considered her "terribly poor," have their own secrets. Those secrets become common knowledge, as things do in a small town.
About those possibilities: Strout satisfies something viscerally in her readers, something we may, in our sophistication, may be embarrassed to admit: the good may not triumph, exactly, but they come out okay. Tommy Guptill, who introduces us to this book, is a good man, loves his wife, helps Lucy, an abused child, loses his farm and forgives the actual arsonist who burned it down, comes out okay in his old age. He is at peace. He still loves his wife. He has lived a life of no great achievement, but of no great shame, either. He will, contrary to Dylan Thomas' instructions, go gentle into that good night. Strout makes us realize that this is, in fact, a pretty fine achievement, after all.
Mary Mumford runs off to Italy to be with an Italian lover many years her junior, leaving her husband of fifty-one years, perplexing, angering her grown daughter. Why? Because it is never too late to stop being unhappy. Even if she waits until her daughters have grown and her husband's cancer is in remission, Mary will seize the moment to try to be happy. It won't be perfect, but it will be better.
Patty Nicely will be with Charlie Macauley, the only man she has ever loved even if he is unworthy of her, and unappreciative.
While plot is Strout's canvas, style is her paint. She revels in the casual aside, the snarky bit, the "oh, you must remember so and so" that brings in fresh new information. Never a false blend. Everything mixed just right. We hear no clangs, except where she wants us to. Characters, to continue the metaphor, are her brushstrokes. They are recognizable, but not distractions. A couple like Marilyn and Charlie Macauley don't have a "good guy and bad guy:" they are two unhappy people, in a sad situation. Neither deserves what they have received from life, but there are consequences. As in real life, the less culpable, Marilyn, seems to suffer more than Charlie who finds someone who to take him in, flaws and all.
Strout isn't telling a morality tale. She is sharing stories of modern America with a world that might not hear them in the blare of fantasy, politics and sex. Ultimately satisfying, "Anything is Possible" paradoxically leaves us open for more.
Elizabeth Strout is the author of the New York Times bestseller Olive Kitteridge, for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize; the national bestseller Abide with Me; and Amy and Isabelle, winner of the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award and the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize. She has also been a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize in London. She lives in Maine and New York City. Visit her website.
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