June 2017

Noted

‘Anything Is Possible’ by Elizabeth Strout

By Helen Elliott
Cover of Anything Is Possible
Viking; $29.99

Nuanced intricacy is Elizabeth Strout’s hallmark. She knows the emotional weight of everything, animate and inanimate. Strout won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009 with Olive Kitteridge, a novel in 13 interconnected stories about a small community in Maine. Anything Is Possible is a novel in nine interconnected stories set in and around Amgash, Illinois. This is also the hometown of Lucy Barton, the New York–based writer who was the subject of Strout’s 2016 novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton.

Lucy returns in just one story, ‘Sister’. Visiting Chicago for a book signing, she hires a car to return to the awful family house she left 17 years ago. Her brother, Pete, still lives there. He never raises the blinds. Her sister, Vicky, who always wants money, also lives in town. Pete’s tremulousness, Lucy’s determination and Vicky’s anger all set up for something unexpected as the siblings talk and remember things about themselves that no one, not even those who love them now, could ever know.

Lucy, Pete and Vicky’s cousin Abel features in ‘Gift’, the book’s final tale. Abel is a successful businessman who also grew up poor and despised, but married “up”. In ‘Gift’ he returns to a theatre after a Christmas show to find the plastic pony that his granddaughter left behind. There he meets the possibly deranged actor who played Scrooge, who hectors him and forces him to sit on a chair and “talk”. Abel apologises. Scrooge’s amazed response – “You’re stuck in a room with a lunatic and you apologize?” – is the start of something Abel has never felt before: friendship. It’s a deeply affecting story about never being able to show who you really might be to another soul.

But every story here is affecting. Strout is in the stellar company of Anne Tyler, Marilynne Robinson and Lorrie Moore: writers who meticulously pursue emotional clarity. Her characters are ordinary people getting on with their days, and although they might recognise an emotion they are often unable to shape it to language. In moments of small drama, however, Strout cuts through with the fizz of truth, disturbing the placid surface of her characters’ lives. Strout is precise and brilliant at two things: the impact of childhood and the imprint of class. Dottie, in ‘Dottie’s Bed & Breakfast’, is a rare filter of intelligent warmth in this bleak, small-town universe. Having to listen courteously to the arrogant doctor’s wife who is staying with her, Dottie observes that her guest “had been raised to speak about herself as though she was the most interesting thing in the world. Listening to her, Dottie almost admired this.” That tiny “almost” underlines the massive disdain of the first sentence. Intricacy in action.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

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