Thursday, May 18, 2017

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout: A review

This is not a sequel, but it would certainly enhance one's pleasure in reading the book to have first read Strout's previous book, My Name is Lucy Barton. In fact, I can't imagine reading Anything is Possible without first having read that earlier book.

Lucy Barton appears physically in only one of the stories here, but her spirit and memories of her are the connective tissue that binds all the stories together.

Those who have read My Name is Lucy Barton will remember that Lucy and her family were from the small town of Amgash, Illinois. The Barton family were dirt poor when Lucy was growing up and the children were conscious of other children, other families feeling superior to them. Moreover, in later life, Lucy and her two siblings remember the daily slights and humiliations, but they also remember those who treated them kindly.

This book takes us back to Amgash and we get to hear many of the stories of those people who interacted with the Bartons, both the ones who were nasty and the ones who were kind. The events of the book take place many years later, when Lucy and the children she grew up with are in middle age and the parents of those children are elderly or dead. 

Lucy had gone on to college and had become a successful writer, with occasional appearances on television. She is a point of pride for many of the inhabitants of Amgash, but she never goes back there. At the time of this book, she had not visited since her father died, fifteen years before. 

When Lucy and her mother were gossiping in My Name is Lucy Barton, we learned many of the names of the residents of Amgash. Now those names become real, fleshed-out characters as they tell us their own stories. We learn that each of them had his/her pains, his/her desires, his/her joys, and his/her tragedies. 

Many of the characters, like the Bartons, had "humble beginnings" and it slowly dawns on the reader (slowly at least for this particular one; maybe others are quicker on the uptake) that what Strout is really exploring here is the question of class. Class as in one's economic and cultural station in life. 

Most of the characters who started out poor have at least become somewhat more comfortable in their circumstances and some, like Lucy Barton, have made the dramatic transition to being financially well-off. But can one ever truly escape those early years of privation? If a child is poor, isolated, and abused, does that experience not color everything that happens in later life, even if that person, as an adult, chooses not to dwell on those unfortunate details? Is it, in fact, true that "anything is possible"?

I thought Strout's exploration of her theme was simply brilliant. She gives us a wide-angle and three-dimensional view of a group of people bound by a particular time and place and by their interactions with a particular character and, through that exploration, has created a complex and rich tableau that gives us a deeper understanding of what it is to be human. What a pleasure it was to read this book!

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

4 comments:

  1. I had seen this book making the rounds in the blogosphere and I kept wondering how come you hadn't reviewed yet since you loved Lucy Barton. I'm glad you loved this one too.

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    1. It's been on my list and finally made its way to the top. Well, maybe I gave it a little nudge.

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  2. Sounds like Ms Strout hit a winning combination with the two books.

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    1. It's the method that she has used all the way back to Olive Kitteridge, showing us her characters as seen through the eyes of others. I find it very effective.

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