Anything Is Possible: A Novel
- By Elizabeth Strout
- Random House
- 272 pp.
- Reviewed by Alice Stephens
- May 5, 2017
Intricately linked stories tell of damage and redemption in a small Midwestern town.
There are a lot of plotlines to follow and details to pore over in Elizabeth Strout’s latest book, Anything Is Possible, a series of linked stories that, as in her Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kitteridge, loosely revolve around a single character, in this case the protagonist of her last novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton.
If that seems like a lot of interlocking parts, it is.
A rich and intricate tapestry of tales, the chapters are tightly woven together: Pick at a single thread, and it will lead through the entire book. Small details echo throughout, glinting and winking off each other, and yet each chapter is a perfect, standalone jewel box, narrated in a distinct voice.
Though some have moved away, most of the characters hail from Amgash, Illinois, Lucy Barton’s “run-down” hometown of corn, soybean, and dairy farms, where everyone knows everyone else’s business. The evocative name, conjuring up a divided America, is a town that could be found in one of those recent publications on the plight of the “forgotten” whites, if it weren’t fictional. But, while there are class divisions, there are no politics in this book other than the personal kind.
The damage that parents do to their children weaves through the stories. Two female characters form a friendship by bonding over the shared trauma of mothers who left their families. The sister of one of them is so haunted by “the terrifying and abiding image of her mother alone and ostracized” that she tolerates and even abets her husband’s deviancy. The Barton children reminisce over the awful things their mother did to them, and the horrible “sex sounds” that came from their parents’ bedroom.
Sex is rarely a beautiful act here; it’s one of power, domination, illicit pleasure, and animal-like rutting, the province of betrayal and abuse. Males risk their very reputations by giving into their urges, like the husband who uses hidden cameras to spy on female houseguests; the Vietnam vet who frequents a prostitute (the only person of color in the book) while telling his wife he’s attending PTSD group-therapy sessions; and Lucy’s father, who is caught masturbating at work.
The twin of sex is shame, which afflicts all the characters to varying degrees. Annie Appleby, whose father harbors a secret that rocks her to her foundation, compares her family to a sausage, and “the skin of the sausage was shame. Her family was encased in shame.”
The two characters whose mothers abandon them are scarred by the disgrace their mothers’ actions bring upon them, especially Patty Nicely, who caught her mother in flagrante with her Spanish teacher, and forever after, “[her] own excitement caused her always terrible, and terrifying, shame.”
A lonely guest who confesses too much to B&B owner Dottie Blaine “was like the man in the proverb; having satisfied her needs, she was ashamed.” Abel Blaine, who along with Lucy Barton is the rare success story in town, is made to feel abashed by his wife for having foraged for food from dumpsters while growing up.
There is the occasional happy union, but most do not live in a state of marital bliss. Charlie Macauley despises and pities his wife, and they eventually separate. Angelina Mumford’s husband leaves her, claiming she’s in love with her mother. Annie Appleby is haunted by the discovery that her parents’ marriage was a lie. Even Abel Blaine, who seems to have a cozy relationship with his spouse, understands “that the tenderness between husband and wife had long been attenuating and that he might have to live the rest of his life without it.”
All of this may sound grim, but each story culminates in an act of mercy. The characters are fully cognizant of their own imperfections and judge others accordingly. When they live in glass houses and throw stones, they know it.
Though kindness entails effort and exacts a price, they look after those who’ve not been as fortunate as they have. As Abel Blaine realizes, “Decency was why he was where he was.” Having learned from the sins of their parents, Strout’s characters are blessed with the capacity for deep empathy for the suffering of others.
A dazzling work of structural, thematic, and psychological complexity, Anything Is Possible stands as an alternate text to those books that depict an angry, hopeless, and despairing white working-class culture. Sure, it is a work of fiction, but as the title suggests, with compassion, even the most damaged individual can find it within herself to break the cycle of shame.
Alice Stephens’ column, Alice in Wordland, appears monthly in the Washington Independent Review of Books.