Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Book Review: "Anything is Possible" by Elizabeth Strout

I don't know about you, but people watching utterly fascinates me. It's really amusing to watch the dynamics of families and groups of friends, but what's even more fun is making up stories about those we see, developing a narrative about their relationships, challenges, and victories. (It would be great to find out how far from the truth these stories are, wouldn't it?)

Reading Elizabeth Strout's new collection of linked stories, Anything is Possible, feels like a cross between people-watching and eavesdropping, because the stories give you glimpses into people's lives you might not ordinarily get, without facing the embarrassing risk of getting caught. These stories are beautifully written, at times utterly moving, and, like people-watching, often truly fascinating and compelling.

I haven't read Strout's My Name is Lucy Barton, but the stories in this collection feature Lucy's small Midwestern hometown of Amgash, Illinois, and Lucy has a presence in many of the stories, and an adult Lucy is a character in one. These are stories of people struggling with challenges—emotional, romantic, familial, professional, even philosophical. As Strout says of a character in one of her stories, but this applies to most of them, "Life had simply not been what she thought it would be."

My favorites in this collection included: "The Sign," in which an elderly man finds his faith tested after a conversation he has with a troubled man he occasionally looks after; "Sister," where an adult Lucy Barton returns to her hometown and her siblings after being away for nearly 20 years; "The Hit-Thumb Theory," about a Vietnam veteran suffering from PTSD who has a dilemma that could radically change the course of his life, and he finds a moment's solace in a small bed-and-breakfast; "Windmills," in which a lonely widow changes her life after reading a book written by someone from her hometown; and "Snow-Blind," about a shocking discovery a young actress makes after she has left her family behind.

These are not happy, well-adjusted people in many cases. A few of the stories deal with odd sexual situations, and at times the characters are quite mean to each other. But Strout's talent as a storyteller makes even the somewhat bizarre stories, and those with unappealing characters interesting, and you want to keep reading them.

Interestingly enough, I've only read one of Strout's earlier books, The Burgess Boys, and I didn't like it that much. But now I'll definitely need to read more of her work, because I really found these stories moving and so well-written. If I had any criticism, it's that she uses subsequent stories to advance the plot of previous ones, referring to a character and saying, "Did you hear that so-and-so did...?" But that was a minor irritation for me.

I know short stories, even linked ones, don't appeal to everyone. But Anything is Possible feels a little like hanging out a party—you spend some time with lots of different people and get the opportunity to hear something about their lives and what makes them tick, then you move on. But the good news is, you don't have to bring an appetizer, help clean up, or worry how you're going to get home afterward.


  1. Try some of her earlier ones - Amy and Isabelle, Abide with Me or Olive Kitteridge. I think you'd like them, knowing what I know of your taste,

    1. Thanks, Gayle. I really was wary of this given how I felt about The Burgess Boys, but now I've heard that's one of her weaker ones. I will definitely read more of her stuff.