Monday, June 18, 2018

#27 [2018/CBR10] "Anything is Possible" by Elizabeth Strout

Anything is Possible (2017) is another book I picked up on President Obama's recommendation. I remember reading Olive Kittredge (2008) many years ago--it must have been right after it was published. At the time I was impressed by the writing, but the details are fuzzy. Anything is Possible is similar in construction: a novel composed of interconnected short stories. However, these stories take place in a small, Midwestern farming community instead of a small town in Maine.

Lucy Barton is the primary connection in these short stories. Everyone in the book is related to her, knows her, and/or has an opinion about her. Growing up, the Barton family was dirt poor, and the children were abused. Lucy managed to break out of town, go to college, move to Manhattan and become a writer. She has just published a new book and is on a publicity tour.

Strout tells the story of Lucy's brother and sister, left behind in town with varying degrees of problems and resentment. We also learned about the dairy farm owner who became a janitor after his farm was burned to the ground. He saw Lucy stay after school every day and knew she was in some kind of trouble. Lucy's cousin was even worse off growing up, but he manages to pull himself out of poverty and become a successful businessman. There are other characters, less connected to Lucy, who fill the book. Their stories are often painful, tragic, and disturbing, but they all feel real.

The construction of this book is unique. The short stories from different perspectives allow the reader to see more of the town and what's going on in it than if the story were focused on one person. At the same time, Strout keeps so much information to herself that I felt I never got closure or a real understanding of any one situation. We never learn what Lucy Barton's book is about and only get glimpses into the sordid reality of each character's life.

Relationships and family seem to be the focus of these stories, and many of these relationships are very dysfunctional. There is abuse, cheating, and judgment from all of the characters, but Strout gives them all reasons for who they are and why they act and react as they do. I was impressed by how Strout managed to craft all these different threads into a greater understanding of a community. There is no doubt it's well written, and would probably be a great book for a book club. There is so much to think about and discuss.

Unfortunately, I also found it difficult to read. There was so much pain and suffering and so little light that I found it depressing. Looking back, some stories may have ended with some happiness, but the reader only hears about this from afar. The focus is on broken people struggling to live and understand each other. There is also very little closure in any of the stories. I felt that Strout just jumped from one depressing thing to the next without any catharsis. The emotional toll piled on. I realize this makes her stories more realistic, but I was glad when I finished the book.

"We're all just a mess, Angelina, trying as hard as we can, we love imperfectly, Angelina, but it's okay."

"It caused Annie to tremble inside; the skin of the sausage was shame. Her family was encased in shame."

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