Anything Is Possible

Elizabeth Strout

Published by Random House US/ Viking UK

April 25/May 4 2017

272pp, hardcover, $27/£12.99

Reviewed by Elsbeth Lindner

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Elizabeth Strout’s short new volume – a collection of interconnected stories – isn’t called The Return of Lucy Barton but it might have been. Lucy was the raw, questing, embryo writer and eponymous heroine of Strout’s most recent and widely praised novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton, (read the bookoxygen review here: ) and since that work Lucy has gone on to achieve a sufficient degree of literary success that her latest publication sends her on an author tour with signing stops. Lucy’s traumatic mid-Western childhood and escape haunt this new book too and, despite Lucy’s earlier avowal that she could not bear return to Amgash, Illinois, where those horrific, formative early years were endured, one of the new stories reveals her making a devastating home trip.

Once again, Strout’s themes are love and pain, poverty and class, damage and resolution, powerful choices and long-endured roles. The complicated mother/daughter bond of love that was central to My Name Is Lucy Barton resurfaces in various of the narratives, in particular the moving tale of a daughter coming to terms with her parent’s new life in Italy. But that story is a rare geographical escape from Amgash and its environs where, according to one narrator, ‘incontinence’ (the verbal kind) is frowned upon.

And so we encounter many solitary and sealed up souls whose lives have crossed, directly or indirectly, with Lucy’s, like widowed Fatty Patty, one of the Pretty Nicely girls. Patty’s marriage was a solace to both parties but also the source of malicious gossip, despite which Patty, a careers councilor, conducts herself with moral grace and touching determination. A central figure in one story, she reappears elsewhere, as do several other figures, as a means of touching in earlier or later developments in their lives with a few brushstrokes.

Lucy’s siblings, Vicky and Pete, appear on multiple occasions too, and they, along with other characters, recall damaged parents and stigmatized childhoods, from the vantage point of an adulthood that is still a long way distant from psychological release.

Strout’s empathy and tenderness radiate from this portrait of a scattered community, even when evoking characters whose unpleasantness is manifest. Her personality assessments are shrewd and understated, although a couple of stories verge into the melodramatic, ringing a slightly less secure note.

Elsewhere the reader is invited into a quiet landscape of contained people whose secrets, compromises and awakenings are both everyday and universal. Women predominate. One or two who are urged to get away do just that, Lucy being foremost among them. Those who stay sink, swim or find their own means of survival.

There’s love in this collection, but there’s ruin too. The last story closes with the line: ‘Anything was possible for anyone.’ But it’s not true. Some of Strout’s people are touched with or by cruelty and are too far gone. Yet an abiding generosity inhabits the volume. The preceding novel was a sweeter, tighter nut, but for those affected and entranced by that book, a return to its landscape is most welcome.

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