Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

For an author with five works of fiction under her belt, the prolific Elizabeth Strout is testing out an intriguing theory with her latest book: When a formula works, stick to it — and not just any old formula, but one that won you one of the most distinguished honors in literature.

Much like the heavy-hitting Olive Kitteridge, which earned a Pulitzer Prize in 2009 and spawned an Emmy-winning HBO miniseries starring Frances McDormand as the intractable Olive, Anything Is Possible is a collection of interconnected stories that turns a spotlight on regular people in their most vulnerable moments. A welcome return to form, its pages are full of searing insight into the darkest corners of the human spirit and starkly demonstrate how shockingly easy it is to both damage and be damaged by those we love — sometimes irreparably so.

The idea for Anything Is Possible came about when Strout was working on My Name Is Lucy Barton, a claustrophobic 2016 novel about an aspiring writer languishing in a hospital with an infection after an appendectomy, her estranged mother by her bedside. Much of that book’s “action” takes place in one room over the course of several agonizing days as Lucy and her mother poke and prod at old wounds by dredging up memories from their never-before discussed past in Amgash, Ill.

While skirting around more serious issues like Lucy’s father’s violent episodes or how wretchedly poor the Bartons were, mother and daughter gossip about the fates of people they knew way back when. There was Mary Mumford, who suffered a heart attack after discovering her husband had a 13-year affair with his secretary. Or stuck-up Kathie Nicely, who fell head over heels for a teacher at the local school and became the laughingstock of the town when she left her husband and kids to be with the man and he turned out to be gay.

For the purposes of My Name Is Lucy Barton, that’s all that dirt dishing was — talk. Hearsay. An aging mother and her desperately lonely daughter’s veiled attempt to bridge a chasm of resentment and bruised feelings before it got to be too late.

But in Anything Is Possible — which Strout wrote in tandem with Lucy Barton — these isolated snippets of people’s lives are transformed into something larger, something more. By giving Mary, Kathie and others dedicated chapters — and, therefore, a voice to tell their own stories — Strout effectively busts Lucy’s Barton’s small, insulated hospital room world wide open.

We find out what happened to Patty, one of Kathie Nicely’s once snooty “Pretty Nicely Girls.” She grew up to become a guidance counselor at the local high school. “Windmills” explores Patty’s dissatisfaction with her job and her attempts to cope after her husband’s sudden death.

There’s Charlie Macauley, a Vietnam vet who fell out of love with his wife Marilyn years ago. “The Hit-Thumb Theory” delves into the breakdown of his seven-month affair with a prostitute.

“Cracked,” definitely the most depraved story in the collection, takes a peek at Patty Nicely’s sister, Linda. In a truly disturbing turn, we watch as she and her husband Jay spy on an unsuspecting houseguest using a set of secretly installed cameras. Truly reprehensible Jay is eventually accused of rape, but it’s the knowledge of her own pathetic complicity that haunts Linda for the rest of her life.

Then, of course, there’s Lucy Barton — the prodigal author who returns home to Amgash after 17 years for a visit. As is often the case after a prolonged absence, the reunion with her brother and sister doesn’t quite go as planned. What the three come to realize about how each processed the events of their childhood speaks volumes about the fallibility of memory.

These stories are riddled with melancholic, even desperate moments. But they aren’t merely vehicles for highlighting characters’ vices or pinpointing just how turned around a life can get. As in past novels, Strout takes every opportunity to reveal her characters’ inherent capacity for goodness despite the burden of seemingly insurmountable circumstances.

Perhaps the most moving story — “Mississippi Mary” — involves another mother-daughter scene much like the one described in My Name Is Lucy Barton. It features 78-year-old Mary Mumford, who finally left her cheating husband after 51 years to move to Italy. She’s now married to a younger Italian man who adores her, and swims daily in the sea wearing a yellow bikini. Her mother’s alien persona is difficult for her still-grieving daughter, who agreed to visit after years of refusing to do so, to stomach.

“I didn’t leave you when you were a child. I did everything I could, and then — I fell in love. So go ahead and be angry, but I wish, I wish —,” Mary tells her.

Ah, the choices we make. They effects they have on our loved ones.

In its entirety, Anything Is Possible is both sweeping in scope and incredibly introspective. That delicate balance is what makes its content so sharp and compulsively readable. In fact, one might say that this — Strout’s winning formula — has succeeded once again. With assuredness, compassion and utmost grace, her words and characters remind us that in life anything is actually possible. The highs. The lows. And everything in between.


Originally ran in the San Francisco Chronicle (April 19, 2017)

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