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Anything Is Possible, Elizabeth Strout

November 2, 2021

Like the two Olive Kitteridge books, Elizabeth Strout’s Anything is Possible is a collection of linked short stories, and they work well together. Anything is Possible was written after My Name is Lucy Barton and continues some of the stories we first heard there. Although I liked Lucy Barton well enough to read it straight through, I like Anything is Possible a lot better. The books that center around Lucy Barton are being marketed as something of a series, so I also read Oh William!, but didn’t like it as much, at least in comparison. Strout is really at her best with linked short stories, turning and turning so you can see different sides of people from different angles.

We see Lucy’s brother Pete, still living alone in their childhood home, struggling with the ghosts of his past. When a kindly neighbor, Tommy, comes by to visit, he asks questions that Pete has never gotten an opportunity to answer before, like about whether his father, who we see mistreating Pete in many of the stories, ever showed remorse, which is what Tommy says “keeps us human.” But it’s the secrets they reveal in these moments of intimacy that feel to Tommy like they might destroy the delicate balance of his contentment with what he has made of his life.

Living nearby and working as a middle school counselor, Patty is being called “fatty Patty” by students and largely ignored, even by her friends, but when she reads “Lucy Barton’s memoir, Lucy wrote how people were always looking to feel superior to someone else, and Patty thought this was true.” She has the feeling that every reader, at least of Elizabeth Strout’s books, craves: “the book had understood her….Lucy Barton had her own shame; oh boy did she have her own shame. And she had risen right straight out of it.”

Charlie, who is having an affair and thinking about leaving his wife, remembers a difficult time when his wife showed that she understood something he was going through and thinks “people could surprise you. Not just their kindness, but also their sudden ability to express things the right way.”

After seeing a lot of people looking to feel superior to someone else and using criticisms of their weight to do it, we get a good-natured glimpse of Pete’s sister through his eyes as he thinks “she was a good driver. He liked her bulkiness, the way she filled her seat and drove with such authority.”

We see behind the appearances that people have created for their lives, like when Dottie is treated badly by a woman named Shelly who is staying at her B&B and wonders
“had people known that Dottie and her brother had eaten from dumpsters when they were children, what would they make of it? Her brother for years now had lived in a huge expensive house outside of Chicago and ran an air-conditioning company, and Dottie was trim and neat, and really quite caught up on world events, and ran this B&B very effectively, so what would people say? That she and her brother, Abel, were the American Dream and that the rest who still ate from dumpsters deserved to do so? A lot of people would secretly feel this way. Shelly Small with her big husband and thinning hair might very well feel this way.”

I liked almost everyone I met in Anything is Possible. By contrast, I didn’t much like William or even Lucy in Oh William! When William is walking to work at New York University we’re told that “he enjoyed this daily walking even though he noticed that he was not as fast as the young people….He took heart in the fact that he could pass many people—the old man with a walker, or a woman who used a cane, or even just a person his age who seemed to move more slowly that he did—and this made him feel healthy and alive.” As a woman who sometimes uses a cane, I have developed an antipathy to people, particularly men, who take pride in the speed with which they can shoulder their way past me, sometimes tipping me a little off balance.

Why Lucy hangs out so much with her ex-husband, William, is not entirely clear except that she likes his “authority,” which by the end of the novel has disappeared, showing that it was her illusion all along. They have the conversation that old people so often have about how they got to where they are. William says “I would like to know—I really would like to—when does a person actually choose anything?….Once every so often—at the very most—I think someone actually chooses something. Otherwise we’re following something—we don’t even know what it is but we follow it.”

Maybe I only like the way Elizabeth Strout’s characters think about life in small glimpses, one looking at another, and then revolving to look at someone else. She is good at that, carving out the facets and displaying them in all their brilliance.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. PAJ permalink
    November 2, 2021 1:15 pm

    This sounds like a book I would enjoy reading.

    • November 4, 2021 4:23 pm

      I think you would. It’s full of the little observations about people that you enjoy.

  2. November 2, 2021 2:21 pm

    A cane is an annoyance to other people – until they need one. We live in a very ableist society (people who eat out of dumpsters don’t have the gumption to improve their lives is an example from your review), and it is annoying to continually face barriers and obstacles that shouldn’t be there in an engineered world: a threshold that is too high for a mobility device, a heavy power-assist door that is almost impossible to open ‘because they disable it during windy weather’!

    In principle, unpleasant people are not good company in stories (for the reader), but goody-two-shoes characters are irritating, too. May be better in small doses.

    • November 4, 2021 4:26 pm

      My experience with the cane today on campus was a construction truck parked in the handicapped space (I’m sure it was only there “for just a minute”) and a teen with her foot in a boot using two crutches but moving pretty fast who forced me off the sidewalk.
      I thought the people in these stories were pretty well-developed, with both foibles and admirable qualities.

      • November 5, 2021 9:39 pm

        I’d be willing to leave the construction truck a nasty note – they get in the habit of doing that, and have inconvenienced countless people who have the right to those spots. It is NOT okay to stop in that spot for ANY length of time.

  3. November 23, 2021 2:56 pm

    I really enjoyed your thoughts about Elizabeth Strout, and Oh William! I can see why the parts that annoyed you did annoy you, especially with the cane business. And yet, she is able to pierce an issue in a way I find deceptively simple. Like Anne Tyler, in a way, she gives us characters that come alive in their flaws, and express opinions that I, too, often feel. I like how she ties everything together, even when it seems that things are separate; I like how she illuminates her characters, as you said, in giving us many sides.

    • November 23, 2021 3:46 pm

      Yes, she is good at “characters who come alive in their flaws.” I love the way you put it, as that’s exactly how I feel about Olive Kitteridge. What a treat you have in store!

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