BOOK REVIEW: Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout – June 2017

Reviewed by Jane Tompkins

Strout’s new novel, Anything Is Possible, I turned back to page one and started reading it again. The book’s world is so gripping and at the same time comforting to inhabit, and the writing is so classically pure, at times exquisite, one doesn’t want to step outside its pages never to return. Like Olive Kitteridge, for which Strout won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009, this novel consists of a series of linked stories, centered now on the fictional town of Amgash, Illinois and a set of loosely related characters. One of them, Lucy Barton, the heroine of Strout’s last novel, serves as a linchpin and a foil for the others since, unlike most of them, she has managed to escape rural Illinois and make a name for herself as a novelist in the great world.

When I got to the end for the second time I turned right back to page one and re-read the first sentence: “Tommy Guptill had once owned a dairy farm, which he’d inherited from his father, and which was about two miles outside of Amgash, Illinois.” Nothing special, but from its no-nonsense directness you can tell it’s the beginning of something real. Maybe that’s why I had to read the book again: As I took it in, sentence by sentence, I felt I was in the presence of something recognizably, and at times shockingly, real. So much so, that although there’s not a word about religion, the supernatural, or anything bordering on a particular brand of spirituality, the stories that Strout tells about her characters are so bone-deep, so true to everything one knows about life, that they start to seem eternal and transcendent. Three or four times as I read I felt I was in the presence of something nameless, joyous, and miraculous, and although one is not at that level most of the time, a sense of its possibility hums beneath the surface from beginning to end. So that as we learn about Tommy Guptill losing his prosperous farm in a terrible fire that, through oversight, he was probably responsible for himself, and learn how he became a janitor at the local school, raised his kids, and lived his life contented and without bitterness, we feel that his story is being held together by an invisible thread that is tied somehow to the epiphanic moments that appear scattered throughout.

The stories dramatize episodes in the lives of characters whose behavior is the stuff from which small town gossip is made: A wife parched for love leaves her husband and country at 74 to marry an Italian 18 years her junior; a husband and father who has a lifelong, passionate—and secret—homosexual affair with the local fourth grade teacher becomes demented with age and everything comes out; a fortyish, overweight high school guidance counselor, widowed after a happy, sexless marriage, falls in love with a much older man wracked by PTSD and his own marital infidelity. The plots make the novel sound like a potboiler; it’s not. The focus is all on the emotions of its characters—raw pain, longing, remembered terror—brilliantly evoked.

The narrative style, pellucid and colloquial, sometimes reflects the idiom of the characters, people from farming families without a lot of education. The effect is to close the distance between the characters and novel’s narrator, a deliberate choice, I think, because the author is determined not to be perceived as any different from her characters. One of the most attractive features of the book is Strout’s refusal to put herself even one inch above them. Her sympathy for their struggles and their shame (a major theme) is profound and her reverence for their kindness and their love is equally strong. In one of the novel’s best moments, Patty, the guidance counselor, says to her friend, Angelina, who can’t forgive her mother for leaving her family at 74: “Listen to this! Lucy Barton’s mother was awful to her, and her father—oh dear God, her father . . . but Lucy loved them, she loved her mother, and her mother loved her! We’re all just a mess, Angelina, trying as hard as we can, we love imperfectly, Angelina, but it’s okay.” Rather than judging the characters—this they do themselves—Strout sees all the way around them so that, by the end of an episode, we understand why they are the way they are. Perhaps it’s this feature, more than any other that makes the book so compelling: It speaks to our desire to be understood and accepted, completely, with nothing held back, no provisos or criticisms in reserve. It’s no wonder I almost started reading it a third time. And I may still. Anything is possible.~