You know that thing where you go your whole life not hearing a name, and then suddenly, you hear it everywhere. ‘Elizabeth Strout‘ did that to me. I don’t know where I was in 2009 when she won the Pulitzer Prize for Olive Kitteridge, or a couple of years ago when HBO made it into a miniseries. I think her name may have seeped into my consciousness with last year’s My Name Is Lucy Barton, but not properly. Now, she is everywhere for me; being interviewed in the Saturday paper, in bookshop window displays and most recently, on my e-reader with Anything Is Possible.
Anything Is Possible is a remarkable book – it’s collection of nine stories but I wouldn’t say it’s a short story collection.
It’s more like a collage… maybe? Each chapter focusses on a different inhabitant of Amgash, a small town in Illinois, but all the characters and their stories are connected- either by blood or association. Strout has also united them in a profound way; each person is straining under the weight of their past (and their present) and is struggling to cope with the complex threads of their lives.
In the story Cracked, Linda Peterson-Cornell is rich, but wretched in her marriage (‘ever since her daughter moved away, saying those awful things about her, Linda had slept away from her husband’). In The Hit-Thumb Theory, Charlie, who had ‘long ago stopped looking like anyone familiar’ is still damaged by his service in the Vietnam War, and has been having an affair with a sex worker – we witness him on the verge of a breakdown.
Sometimes Strout takes the whole story to extrapolate the characters’ vulnerabilities, sometimes she delivers them in short, stunning blows: ‘Mr Daigle did not really yell at his kids; in fact, when Annie and Charlene took a bath he often came in to wash them with a washcloth’. Underpinning all these histories is one theme that Strout captures most succinctly in Dottie’s Bed and Breakfast: ‘She saw Shelly Small as a woman who suffered only from the most common complain of all: Life had simply not been what she thought it would be’.
That life is disappointing is a not a jaunty theme. In each story, I kept waiting for something (anything) to justify the book’s redemptive title. Eventually it comes; the last line on the last page delivers a pale glimmer of hope. Despite this, Anything Is Possible is not nearly depressing as it sounds. There’s a lot to be said for human resilience.
Strout clearly trusts her readers to draw their own conclusions; I loved the lightness of touch across her story telling. At the same time, she has an amazing eye for detail, which she uses to best affect in describing the crushing poverty affecting many in Amgash, and the subtle distinctions of class:
Yvonne’s sandals, with high cork wedges, made her even taller. They gave away to Linda the fact that Yvonne had, in her youth, most likely not come from much. Shoes always gave you away.
Anything Is Possible is not exactly a sequel to My Name Is Lucy Barton, but both novels are heavily interwoven. In Anything Is Possible, Lucy Barton’s success as a writer living in New York hovers over every character who’s not managed to replicate her feat of escaping Amgash. In one beautifully written story, Lucy comes back to her hometown. She meets up with her siblings, Pete and Vicky, after years of being away (‘Lucy, you left here and you have never once come back since Daddy died’). Somehow Strout makes this reunion tender – although Vicky is antagonistic towards Lucy, Pete notices she’s actually put on lipstick – but also excruciating as they relive their bullied and shameful childhoods.
There is no one particular reason why this book is so brilliant. Partly it’s because Elizabeth Strout is an outstanding wordsmith. Partly it’s because she captures people’s vulnerabilities so astutely. But it’s also because she can render what might otherwise be banal into a fascinating excursion into the modern human condition. ‘Elizabeth Strout’ may be a relatively new name to me, but it’s certainly not one that I’m going to forget.
I received a free copy of Anything Is Possible from Penguin Random House in exchange for an honest review. Go read it folks.
Feature image thanks to Pesoto74.