‘Anything Is Possible’ by Elizabeth Strout

A companion piece to the earlier My Name Is Lucy Barton, Strout’s later novel is, in essence, a series of interrelated short stories.

Set much later than the earlier work, with Lucy Barton by now an older, successful writer, Anything Is Possible is a readily accessible character study of people from Lucy’s rural home town – the fictional Amgash, Illinois – and surrounds. Although a key figure throughout, Barton only features beyond name in one of the stories when, with a reading scheduled in Chicago, she decides to call on her brother. It’s their first meeting in many, many years.

All the characters look to live their lives the way they can – people had to decide, really, how they were going to live according to bed-and-breakfast owner, Dottie. The past plays a strong role as they struggle to understand themselves and others, to accept choices made. Some chose to forget, cruelly reminded with the release of Barton’s latest: the name alone is sufficient to bring to the fore past indiscretions or memories. A tear for school counsellor Patty Nicely – one of the Nicely girls in the earlier novel – reminded of her short, happy marriage to Sebbie. After a student calls her Fatty Patty, the shift in dynamic and tension is significant with a conclusion that, in the most positive of all the short stories, proves anything is possible with a degree of application and straightforward thoughtfulness. 

Strout’s skill is creating and developing diverse characters with complexity, depth and ordinariness along with the many ambiguities that make up the human condition. The characters have grace, humour and love amidst loss, hardship and challenges. A mother and daughter relationship, many years apart, gains perspective and depth in Italy. The retired school janitor continues to visit Lucy’s isolated brother, Pete, to check on him in spite of the rumour the Barton patriarch burnt down the man’s barn, ruining him to the point he was forced to take the lowly public wage.

Poignant and hopeful, Anything Is Possible sees, mostly, honest and authentic connections. Love, jealousy, loneliness and so much more is revealed and exposed in this elegant, bittersweet novel.

To listen to a person is not passive. To really listen is active.


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