Reviewed by Harriet
And if such a gift could come to him at such a time… — he opened his eyes, and yes, there it was, the perfect knowledge: Anything was possible for anyone.
Just over a year after the publication of the amazing My Name is Lucy Barton (reviewed here in paperback), Elizabeth Strout has managed to produce another breathtaking novel. Anything is Possible is actually linked to the previous book, but while knowledge of the earlier work adds a depth, or a dimension, to the reading of this new one, it’s certainly not essential. Set in the small town of Amgash, Illinois, the novel explores the lives of a collection of people, all of whom are linked in some way to Lucy Barton. A child of a desperately poor and abusive family, Lucy escaped Amgash as a teenager and went to university. Now, a successful writer, she lives in New York. This much we learn early on, though we don’t meet Lucy herself until well into the narrative. But everyone we do meet remembers her and thinks about her, and her presence in their lives has had an effect of some sort.
Anything is Possible is perhaps best described as a series of closely linked short stories. Someone will appear as a minor character in someone else’s story, and then have a story of their own later on. This sounds as if it might be a bit simplistic, but it isn’t. It’s actually fundamental to what seems to be the overall purpose of the novel, that of showing the inner vulnerablilities of people who may appear on the surface to be deeply flawed and often dislikeable in some way. Many characters are harshly critical of their siblings, cousins or acquaintances; some of these have bad reputations, or are thought of as weak or stupid. But, without exception, when we see into their thoughts and their hearts, we feel understanding, empathy, even love.
People are complicated, and their behaviour to others reflects this. One of the most obvious examples of this is the mother of Lucy Barton, her brother Pete and sister Vicky. In My Name is Lucy Barton, she appeared at her daughter’s hospital bed, and it was clear that powerful feelings existed between them despite unexplored traumas from Lucy’s childhood. In the present novel, we learn more about those early days – Lucy’s deeply troubled father, damaged by the war, appears more pitiable than wicked, but it is her mother who clearly was the abusive one. This is never fully spelled out, but it’s obliquely conveyed through Pete’s ‘my father was a decent man’, and his closing off of any discussion of his mother: ‘I don’t know what my mother was like’. Tommy Guptill, the janitor at Lucy’s school, used to see bruises on her body and knew she was beaten at home – and yet, and yet, this is the woman who sat for three days at her daughter’s bedside, wordlessly communicating great love.
There’s no character here whose life hasn’t been touched in some way by Lucy. A book of hers has recently appeared in the local bookstore – it’s described as a memoir, and we have to assume it’s My Name is Lucy Barton – and she’s been interviewed on TV. All this has stirred up memories of the past. Wealthy Abel Blaine and his sister Dottie, who runs a B&B, recall climbing into dumpsters with their cousins the Barton kids, looking for thrown out food. Pretty, overweight, insecure Patty Nicely remembers visiting the Bartons while her mother had dress fittings with Lucy’s mother, not only the most highly skilled but also the cheapest dressmaker in town; and when she reads Lucy’s memoir, she realises ‘Lucy Barton had her own shame; oh boy did she have her own shame. And she had risen right straight out of it’. Yes, anything is possible.
As for Lucy’s own siblings, Pete and Vicky, they react in very different ways to their sister’s success. Lucy herself has not visited Amgash for seventeen years, until a surprise visit on a book tour brings the three together. Gentle, sad Pete (a ‘boy-man’) is shyly overjoyed, but Vicky, who has said she won’t come, turns up angry and bitter. Slowly, during the course of a painful conversation, the three of them are able to confront some of the dreadful episodes of their childhood, something that proves to be healing for Pete and Vicky, but which uncovers Lucy’s own hidden vulnerability.
I’m conscious, writing this, that it’s hard to convey the extreme beauty of this extraordinary novel. Yes there’s so much pain here, so many misunderstandings, so many bad memories. But through all this come reconciliation, forgiveness and love. Elizabeth Strout has a profound understanding of ordinary people, folk you would probably think had boring, uneventful lives, but who are revealed as having rich, complex depths and immense capacity for change and development. The quotation I put at the beginning is actually the last sentence of the novel and probably says it all as far as Strout’s message here is concerned. I found it incredibly moving, and actually started again at the beginning as soon as I’d finished reading it, something I’ve almost never done before. Please read this – you won’t regret it.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books
Elizabeth Strout, Anything is Possible (Penguin Viking, 2017). 978-0241287972, 272pp., hardback.BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)