A deftly woven, unflinching and beautiful story
In revisiting Lucy Barton’s memoir, Elizabeth Strout details, in precise, luminous prose, moments both deeply human and otherworldly Anything Is Possible
By Elizabeth Strout Viking, £12.99
‘Holy moly,” says Patty Nicely, as she reads the memoir of her former neighbour Lucy Barton, “Oh my gosh.” Patty is one of the Pretty Nicely girls, a name that will be familiar to readers of Elizabeth Strout’s last novel, the magnificent My Name Is Lucy Barton. “It made me feel better,” Patty later says of Lucy’s book, “It made me feel much less alone.” “Oh no,” war-damaged Charlie Macauley counters, “No, we’re always alone.” In Anything Is Possible, Lucy Barton returns to the house where she grew up in Amgash, Illinois, to visit her brother Pete and sister Vicky, having not seen them for 17 years. The book comprises interconnected narratives: vivid, intimate depictions of the lives of Lucy, her siblings and her cousins, Abel and Dottie, among others. The chapters – or stories – each one absorbing as an entity in itself, combine to present the broader story of a family, a town, a society. It’s a deft, unflinching and beautiful weave, reminiscent in its structure of Olive Kitteridge, for which Strout won the Pulitzer Prize.
The book opens with the unravelling of a private miracle. Tommy Guptill, once a janitor at Lucy’s high school, believed that on the night his barn burned down he received a sign from God. This gift has sustained him all his life but he moves from certainty to doubt, “like a tyre becoming flat”, when he recounts the experience for Pete Barton.
The quandary of what to believe, in various manifestations, also besets other characters. Angelina Mumford’s elderly mother left her marriage of 51 years to live in Italy with a younger man. For Angelina, the feeling of not being able to believe things is “the worst feeling of all”. Elsewhere, Annie in Snow-Blind is forced to re-evaluate a dearly held version of her past. An actor, she has for years “used the image of walking up the dirt road holding her father’s hand, the snow-covered fields spread around them” as a means of bringing tears to her eyes on- stage, “for the happiness of it, and the loss of it”. Now, as she confronts difficult revelations, she wonders if it even happened.
Strout excels at handling dark subject matter with grace and compassion. This book contains much hope. In precise, luminous prose, she exquisitely details moments of heightened awareness and understanding that manage to be at once both deeply human and otherworldly.
When Patty Nicely recalls sitting on the post office steps with Charlie Macauley, she remembers “how it seemed outside of time”. “It was the tall white windmills that came to her mind. How their skinny long arms all turned, but never together, except for just once in a while two of them would be turning in unison, their arms poised at the same place in the sky.” And there’s the poignancy of the meeting between Lucy and her brother and sister, Pete Barton’s quietly momentous: “Vicky, we didn’t turn out so bad, you know.”
There are sharp observations on class, something, according to Lucy’s cousin Dottie, that “nobody ever talked about in this country because it wasn’t polite”, and also because “they didn’t really understand what it was”. Dottie, raised in poverty, expected to be watched in shops and asked to leave, long after she stopped being poor. But she notices how a guest in her B&B, the wife of a soon-to-be-retired doctor – “No one can really make a living in medicine anymore” – has been raised “to speak about herself as though she was the most interesting thing in the world”.
Linda (another of the Pretty Nicely girls) and her husband discuss the “slightly slutty, kind of working-class look” of their house guest. Most complex in this regard is Abel Blaine, who as a child scavenged for food in dumpsters. His shame about this comes later, when he tells his wealthy wife, who is horrified and asks him not to tell their children. Now Abel has another new shame to contend with: the shame of having money.
Other shames also feature: shame relating to sex, and abuse, and deeds done in war. There are particular shames visited on women, like Dottie, in sixth grade, brought to the front of the class in her stained dress to be told that nobody was too poor to buy sanitary pads. Annie in Snow-Blind feels like she’s inside a sausage and “the skin of the sausage was shame”.
And yet, there’s a wonder that is almost mystical in the way Annie engages with the world. “The physical world with its dappled light was her earliest friend, and it waited with its open-armed beauty to accept her sense of excitement that nothing else could bring.”
Strout draws us deep into the everyday lives of her characters. “My goodness,” Mary Mumford says to her visiting daughter, “Angel, that is wonderful gossip, my word.” The reader, too, is privy to the trials and humiliations of the people of Amgash, as well as their kindnesses, as they persevere in their attempts to better understand themselves and others. “We don’t know what anything means in this whole world,” Mary Mumford declares. Yet the hope that permeates the book pulses strongly in the closing pages, when Abel experiences “not fear, but a strange exquisite joy, the bliss of things finally and irretrievably out of his control, unpeeled, unpeeling now”.
In this final story, Gift, Abel opens his eyes to “the perfect knowledge”, but where, exactly, is he headed? It’s a perfectly pitched ending to a book so finely attuned to humanity’s flaws, vulnerabilities and moments of transcendence.
Danielle McLaughlin is the author of Dinosaurs on Other Planets
There are sharp observations on class; something, according to Lucy’s cousin Dottie, that ‘nobody ever talked about in this country because it wasn’t polite’
Elizabeth Strout: handles dark subject matter with grace and compassion PHOTOGRAPH: TODD HEISLER/NEW YORK TIMES