ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE, by Elizabeth Strout. Random House, 254 pp., $27.
Some people love to reread their favorite novels, but I can hardly remember the last time I read a book twice. Nevertheless, after finishing Elizabeth Strout’s new collection of linked stories, “Anything Is Possible,” I had to reread her previous book, “My Name Is Lucy Barton” — and then I went straight back to “Anything Is Possible.” I read the two books twice, and was happy about it. Now I’ll just be sitting here waiting for the miniseries, hoping it’s as good as the one HBO and Frances McDormand made based on her Pulitzer Prize-winning “Olive Kitteridge.”
In “My Name Is Lucy Barton,” Lucy, a mother of two in New York City, was hospitalized for many weeks. During this time, her long-estranged mother came in from Amgash, Illinois, and one of the highlights of the visit was getting the update on all the townspeople, though the specific history of the Barton family’s extremely impoverished, unhappy past was generally avoided. But something was dislodged in Lucy by seeing her mother again, and under the influence of a well-known writer she met in a dress shop, she got started on a memoir.
That was in the mid-1980s. Lucy’s book has since been published, and has come out in paperback. The nine stories in “Anything Is Possible,” set about three decades later, explore the lives of all the people of Amgash we heard about in the hospital, and also reveal their opinions of Lucy Barton.
Everyone remembers how poor the Bartons were — that they were said to have cooties, that they smelled, that they lived in a garage. “The Barton kids, Jesus. . . . Poor kids,” is a typical reaction. In the first story, a neighbor of the Bartons who employed Lucy’s father on his dairy farm, goes to check on Lucy’s aging, reclusive brother, Pete. After this neighbor’s farmhouse burned down many years ago, he became a janitor at the local school. There he developed a great tenderness for Lucy, who along with her siblings was “viciously scorned by the other kids, and by some of the teachers too.” After school, he would find her sleeping near the radiator, under her coat, her eyelids wet as if she had been crying.
Now, all these decades later — in his 80s himself, no longer a farmer or a janitor — this man finds out that Pete Barton is still tormented by the belief that it was his father who set fire to the farm. It’s probably true, but it’s a long time ago now, and kindness rules the day here.
Not everyone thinks so fondly of Lucy Barton. “She’s a bitch. She thinks she’s better than any of us,” says Lucy’s niece to her high school guidance counselor, Patty Nicely. A few days later, Patty’s mother tells her, “‘I saw Lucy on TV a few years ago. Hot shot. She wrote a book or something.”
In the thick of her own unhappiness, Patty buys herself a copy of Lucy’s book. What relief she finds there! “Lucy Barton’s book had understood her. . . . Lucy Barton had her own shame; oh boy did she have her own shame. And she had risen right straight out of it.” Lucy’s book makes Patty Nicely feel differently about her life.
The Lucy-centric aspect of the new collection peaks in the story “Sister,” where Lucy drives over from a book event in Chicago to Pete’s house — her first visit to Amgash in 17 years. There we meet her sister, Vicky, who raised that niece who hates Lucy so much. The Barton siblings talk, or try to, about their childhood. Whatever truth Lucy has written, there is more to it. Vicky is furious, and Lucy has a panic attack, and in the course of it, the siblings arrive at a different place.
Gossip has a bad reputation, but sometimes it’s just being interested enough in people to want to know more about them than they might want you to. That’s exactly what this book feels like. For example, in “Mississippi Mary,” we get the inside story on Mary Mumford, who after 51 years of marriage left her husband to live with a younger man in Italy. Fifty-one years. Who does that? “Well — Mary did.” After her five girls were grown, after his affair and her heart attack, after her affair and after his brain cancer. “Anyone who thought they knew anything — well, they were in for a great big surprise.”
The only real question here is whether you should you read “My Name Is Lucy Barton” before you read “Anything Is Possible.” I think either way works. If I’m any guide, you’ll be reading them both twice anyway.