Elizabeth Strout’s new book grows more impressive with each passing page, as it becomes clear that the Pulitzer Prize-winning author is slowly, subtly building one big story from a bunch of small ones.
There are nine chapters in “Anything is Possible.” Each can be enjoyed as a stand-alone short story. But read them in order, and you’ll see that they fit together like tiles in a mosaic.
Collectively, they form a moving work of fiction about the pain we inflict on those close to us, and the heroic acts of kindness that make life bearable.
Set mainly in the rural Midwest, Strout’s interconnected tales are populated by a big ensemble cast. Though there’s no main character, many important episodes involve a woman named Lucy Barton.
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The heroine of “My Name is Lucy Barton,” Strout’s 2016 bestseller, Lucy grew up in severe poverty in Illinois, abused by her father and shunned by neighbors. Lucy has since become a successful writer, and her return home — she’s on a book promotion tour — inspires a complex set of emotions.
Some family members and former classmates admire her achievements. Others thinks she’s turned into a big-city snob (she lives in New York).
The chapter in which Lucy visits her siblings might be the book’s most effective. Her brother Pete is thrilled to see her. He’s cleaned the drapes and bought a new rug. Vicky, their sister, isn’t so welcoming. She still resents Lucy for leaving her behind.
The sisters verbally spar for a few minutes. Vicky lands most of the blows. The discussion eventually shifts to their Dickensian upbringing.
Seated in the same room for the first time in years, Lucy and Pete, who are both gaunt, and Vicky, who’d like to lose some weight, make an important breakthrough: The scars of their youth are evident in their relationships with food.
Recalling that their father once fed them scraps “right from the garbage,” Vicky says, “I can understand why you guys wouldn’t want to eat. I just don’t understand why I do.”
The story is touching in its own right. But what makes it truly memorable is the way that it dovetails with fleeting incidents from other chapters. For instance, when Vicky delivers some good news — Lila, her volatile daughter, will soon be going to college — it reminds us of an episode from early in the book.
Last we saw her, 100 pages ago, Lila was insulting her guidance counselor; she seemed intent on sabotaging her future. Now we learn that she’s righted herself.
This sort of thing happens throughout “Anything is Possible,” as Strout introduces characters, leaves them for extended periods and then circles back to update us on their progress.
Strout also uses this technique to advance Pete’s story. In the book’s first 30 pages, he’s depicted as a despondent recluse. We won’t see him again until the novel is halfway finished, but by then, he too has begun to pull himself together, making new friends and volunteering at a local soup kitchen.
Another example of Strout’s beguiling narrative skill involves Lucy’s second cousin, a bed-and-breakfast owner named Dottie. We see her at her best and worst. Late in the book, she exacts petty revenge on some rude guests. Earlier, however, she’s a compassionate supporting character in a chapter about a troubled war veteran.
The vet, Charlie, has just given a chunk of his life savings to a kind prostitute. Afraid to go home to his wife, he rents one of Dottie’s rooms. He’s emotionally numb, desperate to feel something, even if it’s pain. Though he’s a stranger, Dottie can see something’s wrong, so she joins Charlie in the common room, where they watch a sitcom together.
He “sat up straighter, and he stared pretty hard at that television set,” Strout writes. “He waited, hope like a crocus bulb inside him now. He waited and he hoped, he practically prayed. O sweet Jesus, let (the pain) come. Dear God, please could you? Could you please let it come?”
It’s a beautiful, sorrowful scene, and there are lots of others like it in this exquisite book.
Kevin Canfield is a writer in New York City.
“Anything is Possible,” by Elizabeth Strout (272 pages; Random House; $27)