Anything Is Possible Elizabeth Strout (2017)
My Name is Lucy Barton Elizabeth Strout (2016)
Before you read Elizabeth Strout’s 2017 short story collection, Anything Is Possible, you might want to check out her 2016 novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton. The two books are interconnected and can be read as a cohesive whole.
In My Name Is Lucy Barton, Lucy is a writer in New York City in the 1980s, with a husband and two young daughters. When Lucy is hospitalized for many weeks with a mysterious illness that arises after an appendectomy, her estranged mother travels from rural Illinois to her bedside. The two women reach an uneasy peace with each other, especially as they tell stories about the folks back home, in the (fictional) Amgash, Illinois, a depressed rural area that’s a two-hour drive from Chicago.
In Anything is Possible, set in a recent time period, we meet many of the characters mentioned in My Name is Lucy Barton, both in Amgash and in other locales:
- Pete Barton, Lucy’s reclusive and oddly childlike brother, who still lives in the old Barton house.
- Tommy Guptill, the friendly janitor from Lucy’s elementary school, who is now in his eighties and who keeps an eye on Pete.
- Charlie Macauley, a Vietnam veteran with PTSD, who gets himself into a bind over a prostitute.
- Patty Nicely, a contemporary of Lucy’s and now a high school guidance counselor, who tries to help Lucy’s difficult niece, Lila Lane.
- Mary Mumford, the neighbor woman who left her husband of 51 years to run off to Italy with a younger man.
- Vicky Lane, Lucy’s sister, who reminds Lucy about some of the horrors the siblings endured in their childhood.
- Abel Blaine, Lucy’s cousin, who has built a successful business in Chicago.
Lucy herself enters the linked stories of Anything Is Possible in many ways. She’s become an acclaimed writer and has published a book that the people of Amgash can buy at the local bookstore. Chicago is one of the stops on Lucy’s tour to promote her book, so she stops in Amgash to see her siblings, Pete and Vicky, in one of the stories. Take note that the fictional Lucy’s fictional “memoir” seems to be very much like Elizabeth Strout’s novel My Name is Lucy Barton.
Strout toys with the vagaries of memory in both these books. In Anything Is Possible, we get much more detail about the childhood suffering of the Barton kids—details that were glossed over and somewhat sanitized in My Name is Lucy Barton. The other residents of Amgash are also revealed to have their share of specific miseries, including sexual abuse, mental illness, and crushing poverty. The power of money emerges as another theme. Lucy Barton, who had to scrounge in dumpsters for food as a child, lives the up-by-her-bootstraps version of the American dream when she gets into college and becomes a successful writer. Others in her small town remain impoverished. Sometimes people are poor simply because of bad luck, and money certainly does not buy happiness or stability for the characters in Anything Is Possible.
The prose in these two books is spare, with every word well chosen. The emotions are raw but presented with subtle empathy. Strout’s previous books include the Pulitzer-winning Olive Kitteridge (2008), which is, like Anything Is Possible, set up as linked short stories, and the novel The Burgess Boys (2013). Basically, read anything by Elizabeth Strout that you can get. You won’t be disappointed.