Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout


The masterful storyteller Elizabeth Strout has written a series of connected stories that are each dramatic and engaging. In each we learn that whatever events occurs in a person's life, anything does continue to be possible.

For me the best was the first. Tommy Guptill had a successful dairy farm; the night it burned down he had a realization that he experienced as the presence of God telling him that "It's all right, Tommy." And living in much reduced circumstances as the janitor of the school turned out to be just that, "all right". Tommy was a good man who knew how to be happy through his connections with his family, his neighbors, kids in his school. It is with Tommy's connection to Lucy Barton (of My Name is Lucy Barton), a kid who stayed after school everyday to be warm and away from her terrible parents, that Strout begins making connections with the other tales. Lucy escaped her dreadful childhood and became a famous writer, but her brother Pete still lived near Tommy. Pete is the object of Tommy's neighborly concern and he drops in there regularly.

At the other end of the "good neighbor, happy person" spectrum is Linda Peterson-Cornell, the sister of the subject of a previous story. Linda is married to a sexual predator monster and is pretty monstrous herself. She grew up as Linda Nicely, one of three sisters, known as the Pretty Nicely girls. Their mother left their comfortable home, had an affair with one of their high school teachers, and moved into a small house, and thus disgraced the family. The story of Linda is hard-to-believe-ugly, while her sister Patty is right up there with Tommy.

Patty, a high school counselor, was insulted by the next generation of the Barton family. Patty had called Lila in her office to broach the subject of helping her get to college as she had good scores and grades. Lila hears nothing and is intent on venting her teenage rage to which Patty responds angrily. Over the course of a few days we learn Patty's family story and observe her kindness toward her mother and an unhappy friend. She buys Lucy Barton's latest book. "Holy moly," she said, after a few pages. "Oh my gosh." Though we're never told what's in her book, we get a pretty clear hint. Later Patty thinks, "Lucy Barton had her own shame, oh boy, did she have her own shame. And she had risen right straight out of it. "Huh," said Patty, as she turned the car engine off." When Patty has another meeting with Lucy Barton's niece, Lila has no memory of the previous exchange and dissolves into tears at Patty's honesty and kindness to her.

As the improbable and outlandish stories began to add up, you might begin to wonder what was up with this little town in Illinois. While they may be viewed as dramatic individually, taken as a whole, they began to make me uneasy.

Elizabeth Strout, Anything is Possible, Random House, 2017, 255 pages (I read the Kindle book). Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.

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