Elizabeth Strout, winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Olive Kitteridge, is an author of piercing insight. Many a religious and philosophical tome has been written on moral righteousness but in her slim books, Strout’s characters show us how to live a good life. They embody love and forgiveness.
Anything is Possible is a companion set of stories to her novel My Name is Lucy Barton (2016). The nine stories in this collection centre around an ensemble of residents in the small rural towns of Illinois, outside Chicago. Lucy had grown up there, in desperate poverty. She manages to get to college and then to New York where she becomes a writer. She has just released her memoir and her home town is confronted by an awakened sensibility. Some have read the memoir, others shun it, as they shunned Lucy, but its existence affects everyone.
Each story is defined by a complex life, a private pain, as Strout’s characters search for some way to cope with past hurts – some bury their history, some live in isolation and can no longer recognise an offer of help, others run away, or return home. As their lives intersect through the collection, sometimes in the foreground, sometimes as a backstory, the reader learns more about them.
Strout is interested in why people do the things they do, showing the complexity of human relationship – the pleasure and the harm:
Patty had tremendous sympathy for Angelina … But she wanted to say right now: Listen to this! Lucy Barton’s mother was awful to her, and her father – oh dear God, her father … But Lucy loved them … We’re all just a mess, Angelina, trying as hard as we can, we love imperfectly, Angelina, but it’s okay.
A woman’s private mocking of her host shows the pain of an unfulfilled life; a bed-and-breakfast proprietor who refuses to be bullied spits in the jam of an abusive customer; a janitor shows kindness in allowing a girl to stay behind in the warm classroom. The disparity between the fishbowl of the small town and the anonymity of the city is illustrated when a visiting festival director is billeted with a local couple – her claustrophobia and feeling of exposure in their home is palpable as the reader sees the smallness of their lives.
While those who have got away to the cities are understood to have ‘escaped’, Strout’s quiet recounting of routine tasks by those who have stayed shows the meaning in an ordinary life. Despite the snide remarks, bullying, and social exclusion, her ensemble of characters demonstrates how tiny acts of human kindness can change lives. A teacher who is openly scorned by a student overcomes her own pain to see the child’s greater hurt and helps her, laying a foundation for greater good. And when a woman who participates in her husband’s sexual perversion is confronted by a victim, Strout allows for her self-awareness showing that liberation can come through the courage of forgiveness: Almost always it’s a surprise, the passing of permission to enter a place once seen as eternally closed. And this is how it was for a stunned Linda, who stood that day in that convenience store with the sun falling over packages of corn chips and heard those words of compassion – undeserved …
Courage is also present in characters resolutely doing something they know to be right, but which is hard — embracing a man, recognising his humanity, when he has been shunned by all others.
The beauty of Strout’s writing is one reason to read and reread these stories ‘… and he did not know what he would do … the minnow darting through the stream of his anxiety …’
If you need another reason, Strout’s ability to confront us with the harm and sadness of poverty and mental illness, but without despair, is a marvel. She asks, Why do we do good? And her answer is a message of hope – because it leads to love. In the final story, Abel understands: ‘… perfect knowledge: Anything was possible for anyone.’
Elizabeth Strout Anything is Possible Viking 2017 HB 280pp $29.99
First published in the Newtown Review of Books, 17 August 2017.