Tag Archives: small town life

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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Reunion at Red Paint By by George Harrar

“You don’t erase yourself at every stage of life. Human personalities develop in layers, one on top of the other. Scratch one layer, you can see what’s below.”

In George Harrar’s novel, Reunion at Red Paint Bay, when Simon Howe, owner and editor  of the only newspaper in the small town of Red Paint, Maine begins receiving anonymous postcards that bear cryptic messages, he doesn’t take it too seriously. At first he thinks the postcards might be a mistake, but then as the cards continue to arrive, Simon’s therapist wife, Amy senses danger while Simon is merely amused.  He can’t imagine that he’s “somehow fallen into a cliché mystery novel.” After all nothing ever happens in Red Paint, a small picturesque town, 4 miles by 3 miles with a population at just over 7,000 people–a place that calls itself “the friendliest town in Maine.” Everyone seems to know one another, and this is the sort of town where people don’t worry about locking their front doors. The last murder took place twenty years before, and there are times when Simon finds it difficult to drum up enough newsworthy stories to fill the paper. This is a town where stories about someone losing a toe and a sighting of the Virgin Mary in a pile of sand make the front page.

Reunion at red paint bayAs the cards continue to arrive, it becomes increasingly obvious that the sender has an agenda which involves Simon. Amy, who works with the female survivors of rape, theorizes that whoever is sending the cards is out for revenge. The repetitive nature of the cards appears to have a payoff for the sender:

Revenge is often elaborate. That’s part of its appeal. You get to enjoy it over and over again as you plan it.

At first Simon can’t imagine himself as the object of revenge, but over time, he mentally lists all those who he may have offended over the years, and to his surprise, they are quite a few candidates who might wish him harm. As Simon and Amy feel a growing threat, we see fragmented glimpses of the man who has sent the postcards. He becomes bolder and bolder as he circles Simon, awaiting the perfect moment. Meanwhile as all of this goes on, the town readies itself for a 25 year high school reunion….

Reunion at Red Paint places us immediately in the lives of Simon and Amy Howe. These are people who’ve chosen small town life for a reason, and Red Paint is Simon’s hometown, a place he’s returned to even though he may have given up the chances of a better career. Simon is a wonderful husband and father, but is he all that he seems to be? Shortly after the novel opens, there’s a marvellous scene as husband and wife order a meal for their son at the drive-in window at Burger World. This seemingly simple scene sets the stage to show a division–a divide of communication and true thought processes, for while Amy chides her husband for not being friendly enough with the waitress, Simon has a sneaking desire to go check out the face and the body behind the attractive voice. This scene sets up the novel’s underlying theme: how well do we really know anyone?

Although the novel may appear to be a stalker thriller, and it certainly starts as that, this is not an adequate description. Yes, there are moments of gripping intensity, but in the final analysis, the novel turns in a much more thoughtful, psychological direction and morphs into something unexpected and even creepier as we are faced with some big questions about guilt, remorse and atonement. While the meshing of these two elements: thriller and drama are not always successful, nonetheless, the story generates a lot of issues for discussion regarding the chilling ability to create stories and versions of our lives that in the telling become more acceptable and fit the version of the person we’d like to be. I’d recommend this novel to people who enjoy the novels of Ruth Rendell.

Review copy.

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