Reading Elizabeth Strout makes you realise just how tough it is to be simple. Her prose is precise to the point of austerity, but she still manages to create richly evocative stories and very interesting characters.
Her 2016 novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton was slim but dense with emotions, as the eponymous character lying in a hospital bed is visited by her long-estranged mother.
Lucy had escaped grinding ‘white-trash’ poverty in a small town called Amgash and become a successful writer in New York. Her mother brings her up to speed on the people she left behind, while she waits for her daughter to recover from her mysterious illness.
In Strout’s new collection of short stories, Anything Is Possible, a kind of sequel to, My Name Is Lucy Barton, memories of Lucy hovers over the town for most part, till she eventually makes an appearance. The stories are connected, characters from one story reappear in another, with Lucy being the binding thread, remembered by the various characters with pride and envy. The story that brings her to Amgash after many years, is Sister in which she visits her brother Pete and sister Vicky at their childhood home. All the unhappiness and resentment comes flowing out—Pete has been living in self-imposed isolation with only Tommy dropping by the see him; Vicky is overweight and angry because of their deprived and humiliating childhood.
These are extraordinary stories of ordinary people, who somehow beat the odds—like Tommy Guptill, the successful dairy farmer whose barn and home burns down, and he is forced to become a janitor in the local school. He takes the tragedy with admirable equanimity, and believes it was a sign from God. How the fire actually started is a mystery that is probed in bits and pieces in the other stories.
Lucy Barton’s bestselling book was a memoir and many real people and incidents were alluded to in it. For a small town where everybody knows everybody, there are still secrets, phobias, guilt and torment, which Strout’s stories gently bring out; she writes with sympathy—but not sentimentality--about flawed characters, whose actions affect their loved ones in profound ways. A woman who has an affair and wrecks her marriage, a father who suffers because of his sexuality, an older woman who takes on an Italian lover to the mortification of her daughter, a wife who is aware of her husband’s sexual kinks, but does not want to rock her marriage. Strout expects the reader to be nonjudgmental too and understand that life does not always go according to plan, that that people cope with disappointment and betrayal as best as they can.
Strout leaves a lot unsaid, and the reader has to connect some dots; her writing says so much without a superfluous world or even a hint of melodrama.