Anything is Possible
By Elizabeth Strout. Random House, 2017. 272 pages. $27
“Anything Is Possible,” Elizabeth Strout’s follow-up to “My Name Is Lucy Barton,” is a quiet, absorbing work of exceptional ability. The linked stories in this novel move about in time and plot and point of view. Yet, by novel’s end, we find that the stories and their characters enfold
and support each other in a beautifully coherent symmetry — a most surprising and inventive means of storytelling.
Lucy Barton, the young daughter of the impoverished and abusive family featured in “My Name Is Lucy Barton,” is now an aging author busy promoting her new memoir. Lucy is the thread that links the stories in this book. Most of the references to her are in passing, made by family or acquaintances from her past that make up this book’s main characters. In fact, Lucy has put most everything from her past behind her. We begin to suspect that her memoir may be more bromide than substance. She hasn’t seen Steve, her brother, in 17 years. It isn’t until we come
to “Sister,” a chapter about halfway in, that we finally encounter Lucy herself. She has dared to go to the squalid family home to see her brother.
Each chapter brings readers ever closer to Lucy and the people she grew up with. In “The Sign,” Tommy Guptill, now in his 80s, reflects on the young Lucy who slept alone in empty classrooms he cleaned after school because she didn’t want to go home. Tommy had become the school’s janitor after his thriving farm burned to the ground. He quickly made peace with the enormous loss because the survival of his family was what mattered. That peace is threatened in “The Sign.”
Tommy, like so many of this book’s characters, is a person striving for goodness and decency in the face of life’s relentless challenges. He tells Pete, Lucy’s brother, “I guess there’s always that struggle between what to do and what not to do.” We most often find Strout’s characters in the throes of that struggle. School counselor Patty Nicely, for instance, lashes out at a high school student — Lila, Lucy’s niece — for spewing vulgarity during a counseling session. Patty must not let that ugly encounter stand because Lila is young, vulnerable and has potential.
Most of Strout’s characters grab hold and will not let go. Pete, Lucy’s brother is among the most beautifully rendered. His vulnerability and the rugged, abrasive nature of his life feels raw and very real. Charlie Macauley, a Vietnam veteran with PTSD, is another character of great depth
and complexity. He orchestrates an act that will deprive him of his wife and his lover. In “Hit-Thumb Theory” he braces for what will be a long night of excruciating pain.
We read for “Sister,” midway through. Here we are treated to some of Strout’s most accomplished writing and storytelling. In every story we set off on a fascinating course that, atsome junction, twists. And we must quickly reorient ourselves. We do reorient, only to land solidly at another surprising juncture miles from where we expected to be. In “Sister,” the surprises are wrenching and beautiful at the same time.
Dottie, one of Lucy’s cousins, runs a bed & breakfast. Like Lucy, she and her brother Abel were wretchedly poor, mocked and shamed. Both Dottie and Abel have made comfortable lives for themselves and, like Tommy Guptill, they are compassionate, introspective people with
interesting points of view. Dottie’s guest, Shelly Small, doesn’t just rent a room. She assumes she can occupy Dottie’s time and personal space, as well. As Shelly holds forth, Dottie observes and calculates. During her tiresome ordeal with Mrs. Small, Charlie Macauley takes a room and
melts down. Dottie meets him head on. “I’m going to stay right here and make sure you’re all right,” she tells Charlie. She tells Mr. and Mrs. Small something else: “I offer guests a bed, and I offer them breakfast. I do not offer them counsel from lives they find unendurable.” Of course that statement is imprecise. She had just counseled Charlie, “…you will be okay….”
You must read to the end to reach Abel, Dottie’s astonishing brother. He is in transit and, perhaps, at one of his most open and engaged moments. “What puzzled Abel about life was how much one forgot but then lived with anyway — like phantom limbs, he supposed. Because
he could not honestly say anymore what he’d felt when he’d found food in a dumpster.”
What’s healed over lurks all the same. Strout’s assemblage of courageous characters knows to brace for the inevitable pain. They also know a good deal about the exquisite relief that follows in the aftermath.