In early 2016, Random House released Elizabeth Strout’s lovely novel, “Lucy Barton”. You can read my review of Lucy Barton in this blog. In May of this year, her new novel, “Anything Is Possible” will be released. Anything Is Possible is a set of nine interlocking stories, with the common link being Lucy Barton and her home town of Amgash, Illinois. Although the stories are written in a relatively light style and each is in its own way thought provoking, unfortunately, unlike Lucy Barton, this novel is dark, fatalistic, cynical and dreary.
The novel starts out with a story called “The Sign”. In The Sign we meet an elderly Tommy Guptill, who on the surface appears to be a perfectly happy and satisfied man. Early in his marriage, due to a fire at the farm he inherited from his father, Tommy moves his family to cramped quarters in an undesirable part of town and spends his working life as a janitor at Lucy Barton’s school. As a result of the fire and the move, his family transitions from a life of relative affluence to a life of modesty and simplicity. When we meet Tommy late in his life he muses on the spirituality that overtook him when his life so rapidly changed. He seems to be generally content with his present and past. Yet there is something dark and uncertain lurking beneath that rosy surface.
Tommy has taken it upon himself to periodically look in on Lucy Barton’s brother, Pete, who lives alone in the old Barton family house. In one of his drives to the Barton place, Tommy thinks about his own brother and his stories about World War II and thinks “it seemed the older he grew–and he had grown old–the more he understood that he could not understand this confusing contest between good and evil, and that maybe people were not meant to understand things here on earth.” By the end of the story, Tommy is questioning everything he ever believed.
The Sign sets the tone for all of the remaining stories, the themes being: life is hard and requires perseverance, everyone has secrets and no matter how hard you try, you can never know another person, family and marriage are difficult and regret is consuming.
In “The Hit Thumb Theory”, Charlie Macauley, a war veteran, is awaiting his mistress in a hotel room and, like almost all the characters in this book, his mind is racing about the issues that make up life. “You could buy a snow blower or a nice wool dress for your wife, but beneath it all people were rats scurrying off to find garbage to eat, another rat to hump, making a nest in broken bricks, and soiling it so sourly that one’s contribution to the world was only more excrement.” Ugh, ugh, ugh!
In “Sister”, the last of the nine stories I will subject you to, Lucy Barton comes back home to visit with her sister and brother, whom she has not seen for 17 years. Needless to say the visit is not entirely smooth and the story addresses the complexity of the family relationship. This story is perhaps the only one that has some positive messages about the reliability and forgiveness of family. But even with its relative hopefulness, it exudes a powerful sense of sadness.
If you have been reading my blog you know that I like serious, thought provoking meaning of life novels. And in general I enjoy Elizabeth Strout. But this set of interlocking stories (is it a novel or short stories–I’m not sure) seems determined to plunge you, the reader, into a deep dark place, offering nothing to pull you back out again other than the insatiable need to go on living. I don’t know about you, but I need more than that! If you want to read Anything is Possible when it comes out in May, you can reserve it at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11247154__Sanything%20is%20possible__P0%2C2__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold