Review: ‘Anything is Possible’ by Elizabeth Strout
Those of us who gobbled up Elizabeth Strout’s “My Name is Lucy Barton” have just been served dessert. Her follow-up, “Anything is Possible,” is a deep and delicious dive into the secondary characters of “Lucy Barton.”
When Lucy Barton’s estranged but beloved mother spends time at her hospital bedside in the first book, she regales Lucy with gossip about people Lucy knew during her wreck of a childhood. And it seems, from her tales and her subtle delight, that many of the hometown neighbors who looked down on the “trashy” Bartons got their comeuppance. From affairs and divorces to weight gain and other humiliation, bad things befell these superior folks. Strout gives us a new perspective on those lives in the follow-up.
The interconnected stories in “Anything is Possible” take place years after Lucy’s hospital stay, and they’re about the people we met back then, thanks to her mother. There’s the “Nicely girl who came to a bad end;” Charlie Macauley, who was never the same after coming home from Vietnam; Mississippi Mary, whose husband had an affair with his secretary for 13 years; Lucy’s isolated brother, resentful sister, her cousins and a stream of others. Lucy has a presence throughout the new book, as a young girl remembered by others and in her current iteration as an accomplished author with a new memoir out, long divorced from that husband who never visited her in the hospital.
“Lucy Barton” is all about being made to feel inferior and working to overcome it. “It interests me how we find ways to feel superior to another person. … Whatever we call it, I think it’s the lowest part of who we are, this need to find someone else to put down,” Lucy says then. “Anything is Possible,” while continuing on that theme, is about realizing truths about self and about others, including those who make themselves feel better by looking down on others.
Tommy, the janitor at Lucy’s school who was always kind to her, continues to be kind, in particular to Lucy’s brother Pete. He knows from cruel experience one thing: “He understood that all that mattered in this world were his wife and children, and he thought that people lived their whole lives not knowing this as sharply and as constantly as he did.”
Other characters also come to know truths, too, and grow from disparaged to wise. Fatty Patty, the Nicely girl, reads Lucy’s memoir and identifies with Lucy’s shame and secrets and is changed. Lucy’s cousin Dottie, whose brother used to rummage for food in dumpsters, runs a B&B. She’s learned a lot about people in her business, including that she either connects with her guests or is used by them, nothing in between.
The people of Lucy’s life “came from nothing” or talk about their neighbors that way. People are cruel. “Anything is Possible” could be dark and depressing, but it’s not. Because of Strout’s fine insights into human nature and her exquisite ability to put those into words, it is refreshing, hopeful and vindicating.
Strout leaves readers with a jab, too. How well do you know that person you’re disparaging and what is it about you that you feel the need to place yourself above them?
“Anything is Possible” will make you want to crack open “Lucy Barton” again for a reread. If you missed “Lucy Barton” when it came out, do read it first.
Amy Canfield is an avid reader, the managing editor of the American Journal and Lakes Region Weekly and an editor of Maine Women Magazine.