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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Review of ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE by Elizabeth Strout (New Release)


4.5 Stars
I was fortunate enough to receive an advance reading copy of My Name is Lucy Barton, a book I loved, so I was very excited to receive an advance reading copy of Anything is Possible, which is really a companion book.  The second proved to be as good as the first.

Anything is Possible is a collection of linked stories set in or near Amgash, Illinois, where Lucy Barton grew up.  We are given the stories of the characters that are mentioned in the conversations between Lucy and her mother.  All characters are somehow connected to Lucy; some are relatives while others have just a tangential connection. 

Lucy’s mentor told her that the job of “a writer of fiction was to report on the human condition” and that is what Strout does.  One of Strout’s women thinks, “But this was life!  And it was messy!”  This messiness is what Stout shows:  people struggling with the harsh realities of life.  All have sorrows, fears and secrets.  Many live in private misery.  More than one character suffers from sexual dissatisfaction.  Almost all battle class prejudice.  Abandonment, loneliness, jealousy, guilt, unhappiness, and shame are some of the emotions which dominate lives.    Everyone seems damaged in some way because of poverty or because of a lack of loving relationships - or both. 

Despite their damaged lives, people endure.  Patty, one of the characters, points out that despite Lucy’s shameful upbringing, “she had risen right straight out of it.”  People’s lives can be redeemed; Dottie, another character, comes to understand “that people had to decide, really, how they were going to live.”  Abel, Lucy’s cousin who used to go dumpster diving with her for food but who has become a successful and wealthy man, has an epiphany at the end:  “Anything was possible for anyone.”

Another major theme is that of family bonds.  Several of the characters come from dysfunctional families and they have been scarred.  Yet love remains strong.  Lucy does come to visit her brother Pete and sister Vicky.  Though Vicky is resentful and jealous of Lucy’s success and feels abandoned by her sister who never visits, she shows Lucy some compassion and even tells Pete, “’She’s not coo-coo, Pete.  She just couldn’t stand being back here.  It was too hard for her.’”  An elderly woman wants to tell her daughter, “Listen to this!  Lucy Barton’s mother was awful to her, and her father – oh dear God, her father . . . But Lucy loved them, she loved her mother, and her mother loved her! We’re all just a mess . . . trying as hard as we can, we love imperfectly . . . but that’s okay.”  This is exactly what Lucy’s mentor said to her about her novel in My Name is Lucy Barton:  ““This is a story about a mother who loves her daughter.  Imperfectly.  Because we all love imperfectly.’”

The characters in the book are diverse; some are good, decent people like Tommy Guptill; some are forgiving and compassionate like Patty Nicely; some, like Lila Lane, are judgmental and mean-spirited; others are difficult or troubled.  What is amazing is that each emerges as a multi-faceted character, both complex and complicated.  Even characters who are not admirable or even likeable are shown to be vulnerable.  Linda is a despicable person who married a predator but we are told that she married him “who with his intelligence and vast money seemed to offer a life that might catapult her away from the terrifying and abiding image of her mother alone and ostracized.”  Shelly Small may be an insufferable snob but it is obvious that she was humiliated and hurt by the comments of someone she had considered a friend. 

The prose is concise and lucid; there is not one superfluous word.  Such writing inspires me to go back and re-read My Name is Lucy Barton and then to re-read Anything is Possible too.  Each is a standalone but they also illuminate each other.  

Note:  I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.