Fresh on the heels of her number-one New York Times bestseller My Name is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout returns with a remarkable collection of stories limning the lives of small town Midwesterners. Recalling the form of her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection, Olive Kittredge, Strout has structured the book such that each story can stand alone though they form a cohesive whole taken together, with the protagonists of each tale appearing either as secondary characters or subjects of conversation in the others.
Hovering over it all is the presence of Lucy Barton, who long ago fled the shame of poverty in the desolate Illinois town of Amgash. Lucy’s identity as one who ran away and went on to achieve fame as a writer in New York has made her a sort of nexus of memory in the minds of the people she left behind. Given how quickly Anything is Possible follows My Name is Lucy Barton, one can’t help but wonder if the two projects were written in tandem—the first, a searing study of the fraught relationship between a daughter and her long-estranged mother; the second, a complex illumination of the lives of those who never escaped their own varyingly bleak origins—or who thought they had, only to discover that the scars they bear will never fade.
Lucy Barton returns in one story to discover from her fragile brother and bitter sister how much she has misunderstood about their damaged family. Otherwise, she is present in this new volume primarily as a memory for those who knew her as a tragic waif burdened with a violent, tormented father and an emotionally distant mother.
“Signs,” the first story in Anything is Possible, introduces Tommy Guptill, the janitor at Lucy’s school, who had been a dairy farmer before a tragic fire forced him to take up a humbler means of supporting his family. Tommy regrets having forced his children to go “from having their home be a place that class trips came to…to having to see their father as the man who pushed the broom over the ‘magic dust’ that got tossed over the throw-up of some kid who had been sick in the hallways.” And yet Tommy himself, like many of the other people who populate these haunting stories, believes he has moved forward and found meaning in his loss. Then, years later, he learns something that shakes the foundation of faithful optimism that has enabled him to live without regret.
Most of the stories in Anything is Possible follow similar trajectories, calling to mind the epiphanies of James Joyce’s Dubliners and the enigmatic revelation of grace in the stories of Flannery O’Connor. Strout ingeniously links these tales, at once providing a fuller picture of her protagonists’ lives by showing them through the eyes of others and illustrating what the people of small towns know best: that we are all connected, in the midst of the same struggle. “We’re all just a mess, trying as hard as we can,” thinks Patty Nicely, a recently widowed school guidance counselor. “We love imperfectly, but it’s okay.”
Anything is Possible also pays tribute to the dogged optimism of rural Midwesterners—both the plainspoken, unassuming Lake Wobegon variety and also the Jay Gatsbys, arms extended toward the ever-receding green light. The few who do get away must make their own reckonings with those they’ve left behind. In “Mississippi Mary,” an aging woman has escaped an unhappy marriage for a dreamlike second life with a younger man named Paolo in a village on the Southern coast of Italy. When her adult daughter vents her spite over having been abandoned, Mary pleads for understanding: “But this was life! And it was messy!” Indeed, it is, even for small-town people whose lives appear to be simple.
This rich, luminous volume makes clear why Elizabeth Strout has become one of the most celebrated and beloved literary voices of her generation. For stories that so nimbly and gracefully peel back the layers of human identity and self-consciousness, the most useful comparison is the old masters. Like Joyce, Strout gives Homeric scope to the lives of outwardly unremarkable people. And she is somehow able to plumb such depths in prose that is lyrical and incisive but as unadorned and direct as her characters. Her sentences feel effortlessly fluent, the insights both brilliant and natural, bearing the weight of universal truth. Not a single word is misplaced in this extraordinary book, the title of which is apt, for Elizabeth Strout has proved again that, indeed, anything is possible for a writer of such seemingly limitless gifts.
Ed Tarkington’s debut novel, Only Love Can Break Your Heart, was published by Algonquin Books in January 2016. He lives in Nashville.