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Thursday, September 28, 2017

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE

By Elizabeth Strout


Random House, $27, 254 pages

Everything is not possible in life, but anything might be possible for the citizens leading apparently ordinary lives in Elizabeth Strout’s new novel, “Anything Is Possible.” But not everything is as it seems, and lives turn out to be far from ordinary.

In her book, Miss Strout returns to the town of Amgash, Illinois, and many of the characters from her earlier novel, “My Name is Lucy Barton.” Miss Strout has written nine stories, in language both simple, yet lyrical, exposing subtle layers of complex emotions and behavior. Descriptions are evocative:

“The houses near the center of town were large and old and well-kept, their porches cluttered this time of the year with big pots of geraniums and petunias. The trees in town were tall oaks and black walnuts, and the boughs of honey locusts and chokecherries were pendulous, so that when there were no children playing in the park or in the schoolyard the trees could be heard with their own sound of whispers, and sometimes there was the tinkling sound of ash leaves too. It had almost a fairy-tale quality to it, the town.”

Her characters are realistic, plain-spoken creations, combining strength and weakness, goodness and venality. They live with pain and humiliations, often in shame.

As the stories unfold, old wounds, secrets and memories are exposed. As in her earlier work, Miss Strout’s narrative rings true. The stories interconnect like a patchwork. Characters from one story are developed or explained in another.

Shame is a leitmotif for many of Miss Strout’s characters. Reminiscing, a successful actress in the story “Snow Blind” notes, “They had grown up on shame; it was the nutrient of their soil for a moment, Annie wondered at this, that her brother and sister, good, responsible, decent, fair-minded, had never known the passion that caused a person to risk everything they had, everything they held dear heedlessly put in danger — simply to be near the white dazzle of the sun that somehow for those moments seemed to leave the earth behind.”

Although Lucy Barton is a presence throughout many of the stories, it is not necessary to have read “My Name is Lucy Barton.” Lucy’s recently published memoir is displayed in the local book shop. Her girlhood in Amgash is remembered by some with affection; by others with envy, or even antagonism.

Lucy grew up poor and abused, with her brother, Pete, and sister, Vicky. “[T]hey were the kids that people would say, Oh, cooties!, and run away from.” They “were just trash.” But Lucy “had risen right straight out of [her shame]” and escaped to New York to became a successful author.

In the story “Sister,” Lucy is on a book publicity tour in Chicago. She returns to Amgash for the first time in many years to visit her siblings. The visit is fraught with tension: Pete, now a recluse, is uncomfortable; Vicky is resentful. Pete reminds Lucy how she was made to eat food she discarded out of the toilet bowl, and Vicky how their mother, a seamstress, cut up Vicky’s clothes in punishment for some minor infraction. Gradually, the past became a bond and the siblings are able to forgive one another, their now-dead parents and themselves.

In “Windmills,” Patty Nicely, an overweight high school counselor, is derided and taunted by her students. They call her Fatty Patty. Patty has a crush on Charlie Macauley, “but Charlie was at least twenty years older than Patty; he had been in the Vietnam War when he was young. His wife was notably plain, and thin as a stick.”

Charlie’s affair with a prostitute is told in “The Hit-Thumb Theory.” “[H]e had loved her, really, from the start, and she said she had fallen in love with him too, and told him her name was Tracy and that was how it had been for seven months now: desperately in love. Charlie did not like desperate.” The relationship ends abruptly when Tracy asks Charlie for money: “Her son was in trouble with drugs. Owed a man ten thousand dollars. This knowledge entered the room like a large dark bird, its wingspan wide and frightening.”

Charlie steals his wife’s money for Tracy and in shame, remorse and despair, spends the night in a bed and breakfast run by Dottie, who had been so poor as a child that she and her brother would rummage through garbage cans for food. She had been taught “that a complaining woman was like pushing dirt beneath the finger-nails of God.”

Dottie remembers Charlie, “the dear, dear man [who] began to make a noise that she had never heard before; it was not entirely unsexual in its sound, but it was a sound of terrible pain. Unspeakable pain ” Later, in “Mississippi Mary,” a bit of gossip reveals that Charlie’s wife “kicked him out,” and he was now with a slimmed down Patty.

There is much sadness in “Anything is Possible,” but there is also a glimmer of hope, an acceptance of fate, understanding and appreciation of the world. Shame is often replaced with love in this lovely book.

• Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.


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