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Review: Elizabeth Strout's 'Anything Is Possible' an insightful return to Lucy Barton's hometown

Lucy Barton, from Elizabeth Strout’s 2016 novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton, comes home in Sister, visiting her brother at that decrepit house for the first time in 17 years.
Lucy Barton, from Elizabeth Strout’s 2016 novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton, comes home in Sister, visiting her brother at that decrepit house for the first time in 17 years.
Published Apr. 26, 2017

If you've ever driven breezily through a small town, thinking that not much could happen there, Elizabeth Strout has news for you.

Her richly resonant new book, Anything Is Possible, recalls her 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner Olive Kitteridge in its structure: linked short stories about interrelated characters whose complex inner lives are revealed as we see them from different points of view.

Anything Is Possible is also a sequel to, or amplification of, her 2016 novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton, in which the title character, as an adult, recalls her horrific childhood in a small Illinois town and a later tentative reconciliation with her mother.

Lucy Barton stands at the center of Anything Is Possible as well, although she appears in person only in Sister, the sixth of nine stories. In this book's present Lucy has become a successful author who, in middle age, has published a memoir. Many of the stories reflect how people from her past react to it and to her fame.

Having read My Name Is Lucy Barton will certainly enrich your understanding of this book, but it's not necessary — these stories stand on their own.

The first, The Sign, is concerned with Lucy's younger brother, Pete. It's not clear whether Pete has a mental disability or is so badly scarred by his childhood that he's never developed social skills, but he lives in isolation in his family's ramshackle farmhouse.

The story is told from the point of view of Tommy Guptill, who became a janitor for the local school after his dairy farm was destroyed by fire. Kind-hearted Tommy still checks on middle-aged Pete, whom he remembers as a student.

"The Barton family had been outcasts," Tommy thinks, "even in a town like Amgash, their extreme poverty and strangeness making this so." He recalls an encounter with Lucy when she was a schoolgirl and found out she was going to college. Usually paralyzingly shy, she impulsively hugged him, leaving him to wonder "how much — how little — that girl had ever been hugged."

The visit the story describes between Tommy and Pete seems mundane, but it brings up old memories and new revelations that change Tommy's view of his own life.

In the next story, Windmills, Lucy's memoir plays a key role. Patty Nicely didn't really know Lucy when they were kids but knew of the family. Now Patty is a school counselor, widowed much too soon and trying to remake her shattered life. "At home," she thinks, returning from work, "the lights she'd left on made her house appear cozy; it was one of many things she'd learned about living alone, leaving lights on."

First Patty has an unpleasant encounter on the job with Lucy's teenage niece, who has never met the author: "She's a b----. She thinks she's better than any of us."

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Then Patty reads Lucy's memoir, and it unexpectedly heals her heart: "Lucy Barton had her own shame; oh boy did she have her own shame. And she had risen right straight out of it."

Shame is a nearly universal motive in Anything Is Possible, which addresses class in a way that's rare in American fiction. In Cracked, Patty's sister Linda is a central character. Consumed by shame after her parents' sudden, shocking divorce when she and her sisters were teens, Linda has chosen marriage to a man so wealthy that original art by Calder, Hopper and Picasso graces their house. But there are secret cameras in their guest house; for security and status, Linda has made a monstrous bargain.

In several of the stories, women in Amgash admit to having crushes on Charlie Macauley, a Vietnam veteran with a reserved, gentlemanly manner. The Hit-Thumb Theory takes us inside Charlie's life, which is not what his admirers would expect. The story reveals how wounded he still is by the war, how much he aches for true love — and how much he fears not feeling pain.

Mississippi Mary asks the question, "Who leaves a marriage after 51 years?" Patty's best friend, Angelina, travels to Italy to visit her mother, Mary, who divorced her father and moved across the sea to marry a younger man she'd fallen in love with. Angelina is utterly flabbergasted by her mother's abandonment of the family (even though all her daughters were adults when she left) and appalled at what she calls a "squalid" life in a small apartment near the Mediterranean.

But the two find a way to understanding. "People always kept moving, her mother had said, it's the American way. Moving west, moving south, marrying up, marrying down, getting divorced — but moving."

Lucy herself comes home in Sister, visiting Pete at that decrepit house for the first time in 17 years. She has written about her past, but when older sister Vicky shows up and recounts a gruesome memory, Lucy reacts with panicky denial. "It was exactly that bad, Lucy," Vicky says. Once again, only one child escapes.

That's true as well in Snowblind. Like the Bartons, the Appleby family lives on a farm. They, too, have a stern father and an odd daughter, "a strange little girl named Annie."

As a kid, Annie goes alone into the woods to tell herself stories. She leaves home in her teens and makes a happy career as an actor. When she returns to deal with a family crisis, her grandmother, who has never lived anywhere but the farm, tells her, "Don't come back. Don't get married. Don't have children. All those things will bring you heartache."

Annie plays an offstage role in Dottie's Bed & Breakfast, about an encounter between the sharply observant innkeeper, Dottie Blaine, and a couple of guests, the imperious Dr. Small and his wife, "a nervous, slightly whiny woman whose husband ignored her and so naturally made her more anxious."

To the Smalls, Dottie — who grew up in brutal poverty but made a success of herself — is the next thing to a servant. He treats her brusquely, while Shelly Small chatters away, opening up as one might to a pet and ending up shocked when she realizes how incisive Dottie's intelligence is.

Dottie's brother, Abel, is the main character of the powerful last story, Gift. A well-off businessman, Abel attends a production of A Christmas Carol with his family that turns into anything but a heart-warming holiday moment.

Abel's beloved granddaughter leaves a toy pony at the theater. When he goes back for it, he is taken hostage by the acting teacher who played Scrooge and is clearly having a breakdown.

Abel's response is to treat the man with kindness and patience, and Strout leads us to understand why. His compassion is born of his own past, when he and Lucy Barton, both desperately poor kids, used to Dumpster-dive for food.

He remembers telling his wife about it, and her shocked response: "Weren't you ashamed? And the answer — the understanding — so immediate that it was coming to him even as she spoke: Well, then, you've never been hungry, Elaine."

Abel may or may not survive that night, but he has become a man who understands that sometimes what people are most ashamed of is something that made them stronger, better, more able to love.

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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