Books

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

Elizabeth Strout is a Maine native, and all her previous books have been set either there or in New York, where she spends half her time. Amgash residents are much like the Maine people Strout writes about, though: small-town people living lives limited by geography, obligation, and habit. Yet, as the title of this collection suggests, they are frequently surprised by the turns their paths take and the things they learn about themselves as a result.

Often the characters are revealed through interior monologues as they reflect on these surprising turns. A particularly moving story examines the regret an old woman feels about the pain she has caused her favorite daughter (now middle-aged herself) by moving to Italy and marrying a younger man, after she endured a harsh marriage much longer than she wanted to. Strout writes, “And she could not tell her daughter that had she known what she was doing to her, to her dearest little Angel, she might not have done it.

But this was life! And it was messy!”

Family secrets, with their attendant messes, abound. Pete Barton appears in a story in which he prepares for a rare visit from Lucy. In another, a neighbor, Tommy, drops by. He is an older man who had been the school custodian who had kindly let Lucy stay late at school so she could do her homework in the heated building—the Bartons had been so poor that they lived in an unheated garage. Tommy has long wondered about Pete and Lucy’s odd father, damaged by the War (World War II), assuming that he was responsible for the pain he sees in Pete. On this particular visit he has an insight as he watches Pete destroy a sign with a sledgehammer that Mrs. Barton had put up to advertise her small business as a seamstress. Tommy thinks, “Oh, it was the mother. She must have been the really dangerous one.”

Except for Lucy, who has become a well-known writer who lives in New York, the residents of Amgash live outwardly quiet lives but are filled with inner turmoil and conflict. Their stories are about the way average people attempt to cope with their bewilderment. About Tommy, Strout observes, “It seemed the older he grew—and he had grown old—the more he understood that he could not understand this confusing contest between good and evil, and that maybe people were not meant to understand things here on earth.”

Again and again, the people Strout writes about defy expectations—both theirs and others’. Dark secrets, hidden depth, and unexpected decency are woven throughout these elegant stories. “People surprise you,” one character observes. “Not just their kindness, but also their sudden ability to express things in the right way.” And Strout has the ability to portray the human condition with stunning clarity, expressed in just the right way. You will recognize these people, and yourself, in this book.

 

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  • Andrea April 16, 2020 at 9:29 am

    Hello Cecilia. Hope you are well!!

    Reply