In Elizabeth Strout’s “Anything Is Possible,” the chasm that separates one person from another persists in nine interconnected stories that reintroduce the central character of her novel “My Name Is Lucy Barton.”
“Anything is Possible”
by Elizabeth Strout
Random House, $27, 254 pages
The inability to connect with others, most particularly those held most dear, runs like a vein through stone in Elizabeth Strout’s fiction — apparent, unchangeable and the most fascinating aspect of her work.
In her Pulitzer Prize-winning, HBO-worthy “Olive Kitteridge,” the title character demonstrated a New England Yankee’s flinty reserve. In her latest book, “Anything Is Possible,” Strout shifts location to the rural Midwest. And yet the chasm that separates one person from another persists in nine interconnected stories that reintroduce the central character of Strout’s most recent novel, “My Name Is Lucy Barton” — a much more conflicted soul than Olive but one who also scores low on the emotional- availability scale.
These stories read more like thought experiments for the earlier book than the novel they purport to be, but they have some charm. All are built around the Illinois town where Lucy grew up or the people she knew then. Most have fallen short of their dreams, but the lives of these low achievers feel richer and more openhearted than the few who escaped and claimed wealth or fame.
The author will discuss her book “Anything Is Possible” with former Seattle Times book editor Mary Ann Gwinn and sign books at 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 10, at the Varsity Theater, 4329 University Way N.E., Seattle; $27, includes a copy of book and up to two people (brownpapertickets.com).
Why? Well, consider the adage that we only learn from our failures. Setbacks turn these characters into virtual philosopher kings.
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Consider Dottie, Lucy Barton’s second cousin, who has suffered enough rejection to note how “people absorb first and learn later, if they learn at all” (“Dottie’s Bed & Breakfast”). Or Patty, the high-school counselor whose short and unconsummated marriage taught her how a loving relationship, even one as brief and imperfect as hers, “was the skin that protected you from the world” (“Windmills”).
Lucy, on the other hand, seems light-years from such insight. Having vaulted past an impoverished and dysfunctional background to make her name as a writer in New York City, in this book she appears as an almost mythical figure to those who knew her as a girl. But when she returns to her hometown for a brief visit, it isn’t brief enough (“Sister”).
“You look dressed for a funeral,” older sister Vicky declares, boring in mercilessly from the moment she sees the stylishly black-clad Lucy. “So, like, we’re going to die soon and you thought you should come say goodbye?”
Vicky — overweight, stuck in a job that “stinks,” dependent on Lucy’s handouts — is a caricature, Lucy’s reverse image, attacking because of her own unhappiness. Yet Lucy folds under the weight of memory and her sister’s viciousness. Overcome by a sudden panic attack, she depends on her siblings to guide her out of the all-too-familiar territory where they still live.
We don’t see Lucy again in this book, but she isn’t missed, because the people who grab our sympathies are the small-town folk who live with the practical realities of paying the bills and making do. Neurosis, shmeurosis. Like Tommy, who has spent his life believing an early tragedy was meant to happen, they are engaged in the struggle to avoid bitterness and reconcile themselves to the consequences of bad choices or bad luck (“The Sign”).
In sum, the compelling characters found in these pages are the ones we can identify with, persevering despite past and present obstacles that are fixed like wings to their backs. At her best, Strout shows us the yearning and dignity that coexist with such obstacles. Hope endures. Anything is possible.