Elizabeth Strout’s new novel, “Anything Is Possible” is a stunner. It is unblinking in its psychological portrayals of a cast of characters raised in socially impaired households in a small, Northern Illinois community.
The book is a sequel, of sorts, to Strout’s novel, “My Name Is Lucy Barton,” a story of the long shadow cast by a childhood spent in such a milieu. At the same time, Strout’s new book has creative resonances akin to her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “Olive Kitteridge,” in that both provide refracted glimpses of place seen through a series of linked stories. In her new novel, a score of major and minor characters are drawn in such rich, crisp detail that they sear the heart.
The character Lucy Barton has a significant if distant presence in “Anything Is Possible,” remaining off stage in New York City until the very end. Lucy has become a famous writer and a wife and mother, but she hasn’t escaped the shadow of being told throughout childhood that she “came from nothing,” from a family that was dirt poor, living in a shabby garage where she and her two siblings fed themselves by scavenging in dumpsters and were publicly castigated as society’s bottom dwellers. In “Anything Is Possible,” Lucy’s sister and brother remain sad outcasts on the periphery of the community where they grew up.
The main narrative is largely driven by portraits of the people the Barton kids grew up around, such as the “Pretty Nicely Girls,” Patty and Linda. Patty is now divorced and works as the guidance counselor at the high school. Linda married money and is a snob but lives a barren existence with a darkly perverted husband – though she and her husband are pillars and benefactors in the community.
What went on inside the Nicely girls’ childhood household, however, scarred them. Linda, despite her lavish lifestyle living in a glass house with no curtains and paintings by Picasso and Edward Hopper hanging on the walls, continues to refer to Lucy Barton as “trash.” In stark contrast, Patty comes away from reading Lucy’s new memoir feeling that Lucy completely “understood her.” Patty was especially struck by the line in the memoir about “how people were always looking to feel superior to someone else.”
Then, there’s the story of Charlie Macauley who went off to Vietnam and came back utterly changed. His marriage, so promising when he and his wife first met in college, turned out to be empty of substance, like scenes depicted in Peoria department store windows: You “could buy a snow blower or a nice wool dress for your wife, but beneath it all people were rats scurrying off to find garbage to eat, another rat to hump, making a nest in broken bricks, and soiling it so sourly that one’s contribution to the world was only more excrement.”
Harsh, dark gleanings.
But all is not bleak. There are moments of grace, too. As in a flashback when big-hearted Tommy Guptill, the high school janitor, showed compassion to the young Lucy Barton by not disturbing her when she stayed after school, alone, near a classroom heater to study where it was warm. Or when Angelina, who works with Patty Nicely at the high school, finally flies off to Italy to visit her mother who, after 51 years, escaped a mean, philandering husband to then go and marry a virtual stranger. Her mother escaped not just a bad marriage but also a lifetime of people looking down on her for growing up poor. Angelina struggles to understand how her mother’s life in a seedy apartment with a boorish Italian husband could ever justify her mother abandoning her daughter and everything that was familiar in Illinois. Angelina watches from a window in the apartment as her aging mother enjoys her daily ritual of sitting on a bench in front of the sea in the evening. She sees her mother suddenly rise and go to an old, tottering man as he crosses the street, taking him by the arm to assist him: “It was surprising to Angelina how quickly her mother moved to him; in the light from the streetlight Angelina saw the old man’s face, and it was not just the way he smiled up at her mother, it was the humanness of his expression, and his warmth and depth of his appreciation… Angelina saw then her mother’s face briefly in the light as well. Perhaps it was the angle of the light, but her mother’s face had a momentary brilliance upon it…” The two below on the street chat briefly and then the old man goes off, her mother returning to sit on her bench, looking out to sea.
The poignancy of Strout’s story sharpens in the last third of the novel, which includes Lucy Barton’s return from New York City to visit her brother, Peter, and her sister, Vicky. It is a ruthless scene – ruthlessness, interestingly, being something that Lucy was told as a young writer is essential to vibrant storytelling. The ruthlessness in the siblings’ reunion, however, turns to something touchingly humane, dissolving the estrangement that has long held them.
Strout strips away the false drapery of social class, revealing notions of sophistication as mere gildings of dress, manners and home décor. As Strout tells the story of Dottie, a Barton cousin, who likewise “came from nothing,” Dottie observes that “culture included class, which of course nobody ever talked about in this country because it wasn’t polite… (and) because they didn’t really understand what it was.”
The last two chapters intimate a pointed shift in the narrative, raising the question of whether the story is spinning away from the author. But what the ending two chapters offer is an invitation behind the stage curtain of human drama, where illusions and pretenses are cast away.
Strout’s gifts as a storyteller are evocative of Edward Hopper’s captured moments of American life. Like Hopper, in “Anything Is Possible,” Strout leaves impressions you’ll not soon forget.
Frank O Smith is a Maine writer and ghostwriter whose novel, DREAM SINGER, was named as a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether Prize, and named a Notable Book of the Year in literary fiction by “Shelf Unbound,” an international review magazine. Smith can be reached via his website: