Anything is Possible
By Elizabeth Strout
Random House. 272 pp. $27.
by Jim Higgins
Good news for readers who relished Elizabeth Strout's novel My Name Is Lucy Barton: Lucy makes several appearances in Strout's new book, Anything Is Possible, both as an adult writer visiting her brother in her hometown, and as the memory of a strange waif from a poor family in the minds of others who grew up there.
Characters mentioned briefly in Lucy Barton, such as "Mississippi Mary" Mumford, come to the forefront in this new book, set largely in the fictional Illinois town of Amgash and neighboring communities. Neither novel nor linked story collection strikes me as an adequate term to describe this book's ingenious structure, in which characters reappear in one another's stories. In a few cases, we experience remarkable encounters from different points of view in different stories.
In my favorite story here, "Windmills," high school guidance counselor Patty Nicely intersects with or remembers most of the leading characters in the book's other stories. Patty is one of three sisters known in their youth as the Pretty Nicely girls. Seeing the adult Lucy Barton on TV, Patty remembers her as a girl from a "terribly poor" family whose tiny house smelled. In these stories, the Barton family is talked about as though it were the town's untouchable caste, the lowest rung on the uneasy ladder of class that all climb or cling to.
Widowed in her 40s after a loving but celibate marriage, Patty struggles with compulsive eating and excess weight. There's sexual trauma here, but not the kind you might predict. As a girl, she came home from school one day to discover her mother having rambunctious sex with a teacher (one of the better primal scenes I've read in fiction in many years). The affair not only broke up her parents' marriage, but also burned an image in Patty's brain that filled her with such shame she shut down her own sexuality.
Strout, of course, writes that scene both funnier and kinder than I have summarized it.
Shame and the fearful protections built around it fill these lives and stories. One girl, who would become an actress, envisions her family as a sausage encased in shame. In the most disturbing image, a man who grew up poor remembers the stain on his younger sister's dress being pointed out to her fellow sixth-graders while the girl is lectured that "no one was ever too poor to buy sanitary pads."
In "Mississippi Mary," Patty Nicely's adult friend Angelina copes with her burning discomfort at her mother Mary's behavior. At 78, Mary lives in a small Italian town with a younger man in an apartment Angelina considers squalid and wears a yellow two-piece bikini for her daily swims. Finally visiting Mary after a four-year holdout, Angelina owns the intensity of her maternal bond and also begins to understand Mary a little more.
Like many of the women in these stories, Mary could air a long list of grievances but doesn't. "A complaining woman was like pushing dirt beneath the fingernails of God," a bed-and-breakfast keeper remembers an aunt instructing her.
This reticence is not always a virtue. In the darkest story, "Cracked," a woman colludes with her husband's voyeurism and predatory behavior, until the inevitable disaster.
Strout's sentence style fits these Midwestern folks and tales: straightforward while also seeming effortlessly lyrical, seeded both with humor and bitterness, like many of our days. Even in their final years, the people of Amgash discover things about one another and themselves. "People could surprise you," thinks the troubled, philandering veteran with PTSD in "The Hit-Thumb Theory." "Not just their kindness, but also their sudden ability to express things the right way."
This review originally appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.