Anything is Possible: Elizabeth Strout

“Life had simply not been what she thought it would be.”

I recently watched Olive Kitteridge, and I liked the sour, yet sturdy character of Olive Kitteridge so much, I decided it was about time I tried some of the author’s work. That brings me to Anything is Possible which isn’t a novel as much as a series of interconnected stories, mostly set in Amgash, Illinois. While there’s no one single theme to these nine stories/chapters, family secrets, life’s disappointments, certainties and doubts are highlighted as we flow into, and out of, these characters’ lives.

The first story, The Sign, is told by Tommy Guptill, a former dairy farmer turned school janitor, who in his 80s, reminisces about the child Lucy Barton. Lucy is now a famous author living in New York, and her memoir is on sale in town. The memory of Lucy, who Tommy suspected was abused, causes him to drive out to the isolated Barton homestead and visit her damaged brother. This visit in turn leads Tommy to question an event that uprooted his life.

anything is possible

Other stories concern an overweight, widowed high school guidance councilor who has a meeting with Lucy Barton’s niece, and the councilor’s sister, who’s so afraid of ending up living in a trailer, alone, that she buries her head in the sand concerning her husband. In another story, a married man frequently meets with a prostitute, and fittingly, in “Sister,” Lucy returns home to visit and reconnects with her siblings.  Of the collection, “Dottie’s Bed and Breakfast” stood out for its portrayal of the marriage of Dr and Mrs Small, so miserable and pathological that Dottie feels “comforted about her divorce.

What Dottie had not understood until the Smalls came to stay was that there were different experiences she attended to in this business that made her feel either connected to or used by people. 

I disliked the first story, The Sign as for its cliches, and while I warmed to some of the characters, (Patty, Dottie) for the most part these are a miserable lot. A thread of deep melancholy runs through these stories, and while we all have to live with our mistakes, these lives of quiet desperation made me wonder about the suicide rate among these characters, but no, then again, they seem to carry on, shouldering the burden of disappointment, mistakes, and secrets.

I haven’t read Lucy Barton, and although other reviews state that it’s not necessary to read Lucy Barton before reading Anything is Possible,  it might have helped to be given some background to these characters. I seem to be in the minority opinion here and glowing reviews dominate, but in spite of my disappointment, I still intend to read Olive Kitteridge. 

Review copy

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11 Comments

Filed under Fiction, Strout Elizabeth

11 responses to “Anything is Possible: Elizabeth Strout

  1. Like you, I have sort of arrived at this author via the Olive Kitteridge mini-series, which I thought was excellent. The book is in my TBR, but I probably need to wait a while before reading it as the images from the TV series are still fairly fresh in my mind. I do want to read it though, just to give Strout a try. This one does grab me as much, especially given your response. It does sound a bit grim…

  2. Haha, Guy, I still intend to read Olive Kittredge too – and, from what you say here, I think I’ll still keep it to be my first Strout. I’ve heard so many good things about it, but haven’t seen it. (If it’s been here it must have been on Pay TV, but fingers crossed it is still to come.)

    • I rented it and really enjoyed it. The issue of what sort of mother she was emerges through her relationship w/her son. This would be good material for a book club.

      • Ah Guy, when someone says good material for a bookclub I tend to run the other way because it always feels like people are suggesting it’s a book about women’s issues and that that’s what bookclubs, which tend to be largely women, like! However, in this case, it sounds like you’re saying there’s something about the writing, narrative technique, style that also makes it interesting?

        • No I mean that the book has issues that people can talk about–things that generate conversation. For example, there’s on character whose desire for security trumps all else. is it worth it? (no) that sort of thing. Or a man who failed to report suspected child abuse. Not male/female issues but universal issues.

  3. I can highly recommend Lucy Barton. There was a rv of this one in our paper the other day, with similar thoughts to yours, and it didn’t make me want to read it. Even if it isn’t essential to have read LB I imagine it would be quite a different experience if you had.

  4. I read and quite enjoyed Lucy Barton but have forgotten all about it. I hadn’t heard of this one but I intend to read Olive Kitteridge. Also connected stories. It’s interesting that everything in her works seems connected.

  5. This one is getting so much attention I fully expect it to turn up on multiple prize lists later this year.

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