Books

Elizabeth Strout’s Luminous Short-Story Collection, ‘Anything Is Possible’

Elizabeth Strout’s astonishing new collection of short stories, Anything Is Possible, reconfirms her status as the most acute observer of human behavior writing fiction today. While each story about the local people who live in or around Amgash, Illinois, is a stand-alone gem, they are interrelated, much the way people in any community are in reality. We live our parallel lives, sometimes interacting, sometimes not at all, and then meeting up again later. Some characters central to later stories are introduced in an earlier one through town gossip and idle observations or recollections that people make to each other—as we all do, all the time.

Amgash is the hometown of the central character of Strout’s last novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton, and she and her family also make appearances in this book. Lucy herself is a relative of Olive Kittredge, the main character of Strout’s eponymous book of linked stories, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2009. It was also made into an acclaimed HBO series starring Frances McDormand.

Like those two previous books, Anything Is Possible has the stunning clarity and simplicity of Shaker furniture or a Thomas Eakins portrait, crafted with honesty and a sure hand. Strout has the uncanny ability to describe a character in a few simple sentences. The people in her stories come to life both as unique individuals as well as men and women you will recognize from your own experience.

Talking of a bitter woman whose life has turned out differently than she thought it would, a neighbor explains, “people need to feel superior to someone.” About another, Strout writes, “Life had simply not been what she thought it would be. Shelly had taken life’s disappointments and turned them into a house.”

Lucy Barton is one of the only people to have fled this small but not especially intimate community. These are people who harbor secrets, memories that shame them or thoughts they don’t think others will understand.

With many of Strout’s characters, what’s unsaid is often as important as what is said. Lucy’s cousin, a kind man named Abel Blaine, is one of the few other characters that left Amgash and did well, leaving their childhood of bitter poverty behind and starting a successful business. Now a grandfather, he reflects silently on his long marriage:

“After many years of marriage things get said, scenes occur, and there is a cumulative effect as well. All this sped through Abel’s heart, 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.”

Though Abel and Lucy have escaped small-town life and their deprived childhoods, he is aware of “how much one forgot but then lived with anyway—like phantom limbs.” Strout is a writer who intuitively understands the complex nature of how the past stays with us and how its scars are constantly reasserting themselves. Another character, a woman named Annie, reflects that “her own experience over the years now spread like a piece of knitting in her lap with different colored yarns—some dark—all through it.”

These dark threads provide an undercurrent of vulnerability to Strout’s characters. Their tenuous hold on what they have overcome—some, like Lucy’s brother Pete, not all that well—is a constant shadow that hovers nearby.

But the residents of Amgash are plain people despite the secrets of the dark past. Abel’s sister, Dottie, who with him endured desperate poverty as a child, now runs a bed-and-breakfast. She is divorced, often lonely, but “Dottie was not a woman to complain, having been taught by her decent Aunt Edna one summer—it seemed like a hundred years ago, and practically was—that a complaining woman was like pushing dirt beneath the fingernails of God, and this was an image that Dottie had never been able to fully dislodge.”

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