Anything Is Possible


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ONE OF BARACK OBAMA'S BEST BOOKS OF 2017 An unforgettable cast of small-town characters copes with love and loss from the No. 1 New York Times bestselling and Man Booker long-listed author of My Name is Lucy Barton. A Book of the Year according to: The Times Literary Supplement, The New York Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Observer, the Guardian 'Strout turns her clear, incisive gaze on the intricacies and betrayals of small town life' Maggie O'Farrelll, Observer 'Anything is Possible is predictably great because it's ...

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May 29, 2018

A Visit To Amagash

Elizabeth Strout's novel "Anything is Possible" (2017) takes the reader to the fictitious small town of Amagash, Illinois, through nine separate but interrelated stories about some of the town's residents or former residents. The book follows-up Strout's earlier novel "Lucy Barton" in which the title character escapes from a life on poverty in Amagash to become a successful writer in New York City. The characters in "Anything is Possible" are connected to Lucy Barton in different ways, and Barton herself is the primary character in one of the nine stories. I haven't read the earlier book. I think the second book is meant to stand on its own and doesn't presuppose familiarity with "Lucy Barton".

The stories are recounted in the third person but Strout makes an effort to get inside each of her characters from the inside. Most of the protagonists in the story were born desperately poor in rural areas outside the town or holding menial jobs. Some of the individuals have moved on to other things while others remain in poverty. The book shows interactions between the main characters and other residents of Amagash who are economically somewhat better off. The poorer people are often slighted and condescended to by people in better economic circumstances.

Many of the moments in these stories are poignant and effective. Strout delves into the pasts of her characters and to the many disappointments and hardships they have faced in their lives. The stories explore tensions with families and loved ones. Scenes of despair and sorrow alternate with moments of resilience and hope.

One of the stories I enjoyed in this book is title "Mississippi Mary" who after a marriage of 51 years leaves her husband to live with her lover in Italy. When a daughter comes to visit, Mary is shown to possess compassion and dignity.

The chapter titled "Sister" shows Lucy Barton returning briefly to Amagash after a 17-year absence. Lucy and her sister Vicky have a short discussion about writing, focusing on Lucy's efforts in her work to write the "truthful sentence". Vicky has heard her sister discuss the "truthful sentence" in a lecture that she finds on the Internet. Understanding the difficulty of writing a "truthful sentence" seems to be a quality shared by Strout and her character. It is a difficult task indeed to be truthful and to write truthfully. In the story, Vicky explores the situation when her sister Lucy claims she has been to busy to visit:

"Busy? Who isn't busy?" ... Hey, Lucy, is that what's called a truthful sentence? Didn't I just see you on the computer giving a talk about truthful sentences? "A writer should write only what is true'. Some crap like that you were saying. And you sit there and say to me, 'I've been very busy' . Well I don't believe you. You didn't come here because you didn't want to."

There are many effective truthful sentences in this book in scenes of family tension, struggle and hope. The fine moments together with the thoughtful, favorable reviews of this book by perceptive readers gave me pause when I found myself, on balance, disliking this book. With mixed feelings, I had to conclude this book didn't work. Part of the reason was the ham-fisted approach to the poverty of her characters, with the author's all-too-frequent reminder of how many of her protagonists were forced to eat from garbage cans and dumpsters in their childhoods. The more worrisome part of the book for me was the apparent heavy negativity towards sexuality. Virtually every story in this book turns on a type of sexual misbehavior, most of which involve a man abusing a woman or betraying his spouse. The heroes in this book, as with Mississippi Mary tend to be the women who get away. There is a sense of sharpness and anger in this book, particularly women's anger at men in the context of male-female relationships that weaken the book's efforts to portray small town life. I thought of the works of Kent Haruf and Marilyne Robinson. Both these writers have a strong sense of human frailty and write with realism and both write with a broader perspective than that shown in this book. The final chapter in this book, "Gift" ultimately settled my view against this book. It involves an actor and revolves around a contrived, embarrassing scene involving some political, personal criticism and observation directed against on of the former residents of Amagash who went on to achieve a degree of economic success. I thought on balance the book was more interested in criticizing than in depicting American small town life.

I agree with the goal Lucy Barton expresses of writing a "truthful sentence". I agree as well that this goal is difficult of attainment for writers as well as for reviewers and readers. Not everyone always agrees on the nature of a truthful sentence. As best as I can put my own truthful sentence, this book didn't work for me.

Robin Friedman

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