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.

A Giveaway of Mary Hocking’s The Very Dead of Winter, A Short Review of Elizabeth Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton, & Three Literary Links

The Very Dead of Winter Mary Hocking 657931The blogger Heaven Ali has done the improbable:  in a one-woman e-mail campaign, she persuaded Bello Pan to reissue Mary Hocking’s out-of-print novels.    Next week, Bello will publish Hocking’s first 12 books in e-book form. I have enjoyed four of Hocking’s absorbing novels, which are vaguely reminiscent of the work of Penelope Lively and Elizabeth Jane Howard.  (Here is a link to my post about Hocking’s Good Daughters and A Particular Place. )

In the spirit of revival, I am giving away a copy of Mary Hocking’s The Very Dead of Winter.   If you would like it, leave a comment or write to me at mirabiledictu.org@gmail.com

The giveaway is only open to Americans or Canadians. (Sorry, the postage rates are just too high to send to Europe!)

A BRIEF REVIEW of Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton

I recently read and loved Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton, a gorgeous, lyrical novel about a complicated mother-daughter relationship.  The narrator, Lucy Barton, escaped a harrowing, impoverished childhood through a college education.   She reinvented herself as a wife, mother, and writer in New York.

strout my name is lucy barton 9781400067695_custom-3102f059730b66633fef44e3287ef91337c0495f-s400-c85The book opens with Lucy’s reminiscence of a hospitalization many years ago.  She teeters on the brink between life and death after a routine appendectomy. “No one could isolate any bacteria or figure out what had gone wrong.  No one ever did.”

She looks out the window:  Life  passes her by outside the hospital.

It was May, and then June, and I remember how I would stand and look out the window at the sidewalk below and watch the young women–my age–in their spring clothes, out on their lunch breaks; I could see their heads moving in conversation, their blouses rippling in the breeze.  I thought how when I got out of the hospital I would never again walk down the sidewalk without giving thanks for being one of those people, and for many years I did that–I would remember the view from the hospital window and be glad for the sidewalk I was walking on.

Unexpectedly, Lucy’s mother shows up and stays with her in the hospital for a week.  They have had little to do with each other since Lucy left home.   They were so poor when she was growing up in a small town in Illinois that they lived in her uncle’s unheated garage. Her  parents could not afford a babysitter:  they locked her in a truck for hours while they worked on a farm.  She screamed for hours when she saw a snake was curled up on the seat.

This reconciliation with her mother is necessary to her recovery from the operation.  And  she manages to write a novel about this relationship.

Love it, loved it, loved it! This is the first I’ve read by Strout, and I look forward to her other novels.


Here are three links to outstanding literary articles.  There are so many good ones!

1. Sarah Lyall’s excellent interview with Elizabeth Strout at The New York Times inspired me to read My Name Is Lucy Barton.  Lyall begins by  quoting the narrator Lucy’s writing teacher, who tells her students not to blur the line between life and fiction and that it’s not her job “to make readers know what’s a narrative voice and not the private view of the author.”

Lyall explains,

She’s speaking to her own fictional audience, and possibly to us, too. But who knows which voice reflects whose view in the deceptively simple but many-layered world of “Lucy Barton”? On the surface, the story is about a woman trying to recover from an illness and make peace with her mother. But, like all of Ms. Strout’s generous-hearted, deeply insightful novels, it is really about a great deal more: a terribly troubled past, a present that is slowly imploding, the yawning spaces between even the closest of people, our frequent inability to see what’s in front of us.

I loved the book!  One of the best I’ve read this year.

2. Bronte fans will be intrigued by Samantha Ellis’s eloquent review at the TLS of  Deborah Lutz’s The Brontë Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects, which has been shortlisted for the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography. In this review, Ellis also writes about Lutz’s  book about post-mortem Victoriana, Relics of Death in Victorian Literature and Culture.

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3 Michael Dirda entertains us with a review of Jack Lynch’s You Could Look It Up: You Could Look It Up:  The Reference Shelf From Ancient Babylon to Wikipedia at The Washington Post.