Anything Is Possible
“And so there’s a struggle, or a contest, I guess you could say, all the time, it seems to me. And remorse, well, to be able to show remorse—to be able to be sorry about what we’ve done that’s hurt other people—that keeps us human.” Tommy” ― Elizabeth Strout, Anything Is Possible
Elizabeth Strout is not a new novelist to me. I previously read Olive Kitteridge and The Burgess Boys; however I did not read My Name is Lucy Barton, the novel that immediately preceded Anything Is Possible. It is not exactly a sequel, but it does feature Lucy Barton as one of the characters. Set in and around Barton’s home town of Amgash, Illinois (somewhere between Chicago and Rockford, Illinois), it is a novel told in a series of interconnected stories, each featuring a tale of small-town life that often illuminates a profound truth.
I could especially relate to the opening chapter as it begins with the description of a dairy farm and I grew up in a small town surrounded by dairy farms. The chapter tells of Tommy Guptill, who had once owned a dairy farm that burned to the ground, possibly as a result of arson. Instead of being shattered by the loss of his home and livelihood, Guptill sees the fire as a spiritual omen: “It was not in Tommy’s nature to regret things and on the night of the fire – in the midst of his galloping fear – he understood that all that mattered in the world were his wife and children and he thought that people lived their whole lives not knowing this as sharp and constantly as he did.”
Strout is often able to convey both the detail of individual character and that character’s broader understanding of life all while still maintaining an easy rhythm and economy of expression. Her style is all the more powerful for its understatement, and reminded me of both John Steinbeck and Anne Tyler – two other great observers of the interaction between internal and external landscapes, who also appreciate the value of simplicity over self-conscious florid prose.
But there are echoes of Tolstoy here, too, most notably the Russian novelist’s oft-quoted maxim that “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. The characters in Anything Is Possible are shaped and sometimes haunted by their past, or trapped by the difficulties of present relationships and their inability to say how they feel.
Often there is a wrenching, beautiful dissonance between private desires and public obligations: for example, Linda, who stays with her rich, distant husband in their soulless, art-filled mansion, despite his creepy predilections; and Charlie, the Vietnam vet tortured by his wartime experiences, who has fallen in love with a prostitute and out of love with his wife; and the father who keeps his sexuality a secret from his family until his death, when the truth emerges. The prose demonstrates compassion for the characters, but never sentimentality. Their stories are told with respect, nuance and an ability to present realistic dialogue.
One of my favorite chapters was Mississippi Mary. In it a woman goes to visit her mother, Mary, now living in an Italian village with her younger lover. The daughter tells Mary that other people they pass on the street mistakenly believe that, because of the visible age difference, her romantic partner is actually her son.
“Mary considered this. ‘Except why would they think I was his mother? I’m American, he’s Italian. They probably didn’t think that.’
“‘You’re my mother!’ Angelina burst out, and this caused Mary to almost weep again, because she had a searing glimpse of all the damage she must have done.”
Strout writes people who talk as people actually talk and not one line of dialogue is wasted. It all does something: advancing the story in some way or elucidating an inner feeling, in this case, a daughter’s sense of rejection and possession and the impetuosity she knows she should have outgrown. All this in a couple of sentences.
Lucy Barton herself does make an appearance in Sister where she is shown struggling with her own feeling of not belonging. In spite of her difficult childhood, Lucy has become a published author and her success is referred to by other characters throughout the book with a mixture of pride and resentment. But when she returns to Amgash, Lucy is caught between two worlds – simultaneously comforted by the familiarity of her one-time home and panicked by the memories it contains. She has been away so long that she is now a visitor to this town.
This short novel displays the skills of a brilliant chronicler of the ambiguity and delicacy of the human condition. If you like novels that comprise stories with differing sets of characters who demonstrate humanity in spite of occasional bitterness you will enjoy Anything Is Possible. It is an unusually good novel whose stories share a theme of the longing to be understood.