Book Review of “Anything is Possible” by Elizabeth Strout.
With this book, Strout returns to her connected short story format, which she used for her well-known book, “Olive Kitteridge,” but this time she does so with a type of follow-up to her novel “My Name is Lucy Barton.” These nine stories take place in the fictional town of Amgash, Illinois – Lucy Barton’s home town. All of the characters in this book appeared as very minor characters in Strout’s novel, but now become their own protagonists, as Strout investigates each of them more deeply, together with their relationships – from comprehensive to practically insignificant – to the now famous Lucy, as well as with each other.
I’m afraid I’ve never gotten around to reading “Olive Kitteridge” despite it sitting on my shelves since soon after it was published. My husband read it and loved it, but before I got around to reading it myself, that marvelous mini-series came on TV (with the inimitable Frances McDormand), and maybe that’s why I never found the need to read the book. However, I do know that it, like this book, is also a collection of connected short stories. That’s not a complaint. I actually enjoy short stories a great deal, and I always feel that if there’s something that connects them, they can be particularly effective. For example, Rachel Joyce’s short story collection “A Snow Garden and Other Stories” also had a common thread going through them, and I thought that was exceptional! Since Strout’s previous foray into this format was apparently so successful, I had high hopes for this book, especially because I really enjoyed her novel. The question is, did this book live up to those expectations or not? Well, the short answer to that is yes, but with some reservations.
First of all, I must point out that Strout’s writing once again excited me and I find her style very appealing indeed, which consistently comes through beautifully in all of these stories. Strout has an ethereal quality to her style, which is soft and welcoming. This means that with each story, and each new set of characters, we feel like we are being invited into their lives, like an old, and beloved friend who we haven’t had contact with for a long time. That may sound a touch sentimental, but that’s exactly how each of these stories felt to me.
Now, when it comes to short stories, one essential element (at least for me) is that they form as full of a picture as possible. That doesn’t mean that the stories have to come to an absolute conclusion, but rather that they feel like a well-focused snapshot of the people and the situations portrayed. Achieving this is something that Strout succeeds with perfectly, even when we feel that something has been left unfinished. This is mostly evident when you understand how each of these stories fits together with any or all of the others. That’s when you’ll have that “a-ha” moment, which is priceless, and that moment happens in practically every story here (at least, I think it will, particularly if you’ve read her novel).
Strout also has a way of inventing the type of characters that I adore – the quirky, real-life, heavily flawed type of people, some of whom try to be good and fail, and other who wish they weren’t so good all the time, as that makes them into the world’s doormats. As they mix together and intermingle, we get a portrait of a Midwestern rural life that has both lost some of its old-world charm, while also keeping up with the times, at both the expense and for the betterment of the location and all of its various inhabitants.
However, I have to say that I felt that the blurb on the back of the edition I have is terribly misleading. It says that this book “tells the story of the inhabitants of rural, rundown Amgash, Illinois, the hometown of Lucy Barton, a successful New York writer who finally returns, after seventeen years of absence, to visit the siblings she left behind.” Why exactly did they tout this book in this way when only one of the stories in this collection include Lucy Barton herself, and her meeting with her brother and sister? The other eight don’t have Lucy or either of her siblings as characters, even though they might drop her name into each one. That’s not really the same thing at all. Okay, so they wanted to sell this book through the popularity of the previous one, but this was just unacceptable advertising, in my opinion.
That said, I can’t say that this was all that much of a disappointment, but I do have to say that although I enjoyed each of these stories on their own, I also felt like there was less cohesion here than I was hoping to find. Furthermore, this really isn’t a sequel to “Lucy Barton” so much as a way for Strout to bring more life into some of the minor characters from that book by telling us all the backstories that she invented for them all. In a way, these stories were a way for Strout to flesh out her novel. It occurs to me that had these stories been included in that work, we might have felt that the novel wasn’t focused enough, or was in need of editing. So, while I think these stories are all beautifully written, fascinating and with wonderful characters, and I can recommend them for those aspects, if you’re looking for a sequel to “Lucy Barton” you won’t really find that here. Still, I’ll recommend it with a very healthy four out of five stars.
Random House released “Anything is Possible” by Elizabeth Strout in 2017. This book is available (via these affiliate links) from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Walmart (Kobo) US eBooks and audiobooks, the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), Wordery or The Book Depository (both with free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literacy), as well as from an IndieBound store near you.