Elizabeth Strout’s Anything Is Possible

I am a fan of Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout’s gorgeous, lyrical novel My Name Is Lucy Barton, which was a finalist for last year’s Baileys Women’s Prize and the Man Booker Prize. Lucy, a successful writer in New York, looks back at an illness that ended in reconciliation with her estranged mother.   Hospitalized for a life-threatening infection after surgery, Lucy lay there musing on her impoverished childhood in a small town in Illinois, and then her mother unexpectedly came to stay for a week.

I looked forward to Strout’s new collection of linked short stories, Anything Is Possible, set in Lucy Barton’s hometown, Amgash, Illinois.  I was hugely disappointed.

The links between the stories are clever, but Strout’s mix of lyricism, realism, and sentimentality can be jarring.  Strout tells the stories of Lucy’s old friends and acquaintances, and in general she tells them very well. Unfortunately, I couldn’t believe in the characters.  And  the opening story, “The Sign,” is a strange combination of wrenching drama and syrupy prose.

In “The Sign,” the protagonist, Tommy Guptill, is too good to be true.  He worked for 30 years as a school janitor after he lost his sheep farm in a fire, and has no regrets about losing the farm and raising his children in humble circumstances.

Is anybody as saintly as Tommy?  In the following passage, he remembers his Christian revelation during the fire.

But he had felt that night, while his wife kept the children over by the road—he had rushed them from the house when he saw the barn was on fire—as he watched the enormous flames flying into the nighttime sky, then heard the terrible screaming sounds of the cows as they died, he had felt many things, but it was just as the roof of his house crashed in, fell into the house itself, right into their bedrooms and the living room below with all the photos of the children and his parents, as he saw this happen he had felt—undeniably—what he could only think was the presence of God, and he understood why angels had always been portrayed as having wings, because there had been a sensation of that—of a rushing sound, or not even a sound, and then it was as though God, who had no face, but was God, pressed up against him and conveyed to him without words—so briefly, so fleetingly—some message that Tommy understood to be: It’s all right, Tommy. And then Tommy had understood that it was all right.

I want to love this well-written book, and yet…

Elizabeth Strout

Tommy is a good Samaritan.  When he sees Lucy’s new book in the bookstore display, he remembers her as a girl, and decides to visit Lucy’s brother, Pete, a frightened, middle-aged man who works at odd jobs. Pete accuses Tommy of visiting “to torture” him.  After Tommy calms him down, Pete confesses that his father burned down Tommy’s farm.  (The fire happened after Tommy caught Mr. Barton masturbating behind the barn.) Tommy tells Pete no one knows for sure about the fire, and resolves to visit Pete more often.

It’s part Faulkner’s Snopes, part Kent Haruf, and a lot of Hallmark special!

The other stories are more structurally solid, but the characterization is often unconvincing.  In “Windmills,” Patty Nicely, a high school counselor, is excited to see Lucy on TV promoting her book.  She tells her husband Lucy looks “nice”.

“I didn’t know them, since I was in school in Hanston, but they were the kids that people would say, Oh, cooties!, and run away from,” she explained to her husband.

Patty  used to be popular  in high school, but she always hated making out with the boys.  Now she is very fat, partly from antidepressants, and her marriage was asexual.  At school, during a counseling session,  Lucy Barton’s poor-trashy niece, Lila Lane, jeers at Patty’s kindness and calls her “Fatty Patty.” Patty is stung,  but doesn’t bear a grudge:  remembering the town’s unkindness to Lucy, she schedules another session and explains that Lila, with her high grades and scores, can get a scholarship (and escape Amgash like her aunt).

Most of the stories are very slight.  In “Mississippi Mary,” Angelina visits her 78-year-old mother in Italy. Mary left her husband to live with  her younger Italian boyfriend four years ago.  Eventually, Angelina feels compassion and reconciles with her mother.   In “The Hit-Thumb Theory,” Charlie’s prostitute girlfriend tells him she needs $10,000 to pay off her son’s drug dealer.  He realizes that she never loved him, and ends up spending the night watching TV in a bed and breakfast.  In “Dottie’s Bed & Breakfast,” an unhappy doctor’s wife confides in Dottie, the owner of bed and a breakfast, and then turns on her and snubs her when Dottie does not respond as she wants her to.  But Dottie holds her own.

The best story , “Sister,” centers on Lucy’s first visit in seventeen years to Amgash. She is giving a reading in Chicago, and arranges to visit her brother Pete the next day.  Touchingly,  Pete attempts to clean the house, and even buys a new rug, but their sister Vicky refuses to have anything to do with Lucy.  Everything goes fine until Vicky arrives after all:  she sneers at Lucy, mocks her Youtbe videos about writing “true sentences,” and then tells stories of ther mother’s abuse: their mother once forced Vicky to  kneel down and eat liver out of the toilet.    Lucy has an anxiety attack.  First, she denies that any of the abuse happened.  Then she loses control.

Lucy looked at the ceiling, then she began to shake her hands as if she had just washed them and there was no towel. “I can’t stand it,” she said. “Oh God help me. I can’t stand it, I can’t stand it, I can’t—”

And she can’t stay another minute, despite good intentions.  Is staying a way the only path to building a life?  In Lucy’s case, yes.

Some of you will love this book.  I did not.  But it is a good weekend read.

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