Anything is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout, is marketed as a novel but reads as a series of interconnected short stories. Each of the nine chapters introduces the reader to a new protagonist with links to a small town in Illinois, USA. Many of the characters are related and briefly referred to in each other’s stories. Also mentioned with a regularity that irked is Lucy Barton, a successful novelist who grew up in the town and got away.
The author received much critical acclaim for her novel My Name is Lucy Barton which I have not read. By referring to this character so frequently it sometimes felt promotional. Lucy does make an appearance in one of the chapters but in that story is no more important than anyone else. The townsfolk would likely be interested in the minor celebrity of their former resident but the number of references made gave her an importance that felt overplayed.
Each of the nine stories explores the private lives and intimate thoughts of a middle aged or elderly resident over a few days in their lives. The writing style brought to mind that of Kent Haruf although is rougher around the edges. It tries to be gently perceptive yet portrays mainly the unpleasant aspects of character. In particular, the grown up children appear selfish and needy, blaming their parents for not being willing to put up with unhappiness in order to perpetuate the myth of family desired.
Progressing through each chapter the reader is shown how characters are viewed through other’s eyes. The starving children who hunt for discarded food are reviled for not showing sufficient shame at their predicament. When they raise their standard of living later in life there is little admiration, rather an expectation is voiced that they should remember their roots and not look to be accepted as equals by those who always enjoyed plenty.
Obesity is regarded as a self inflicted failure. A husband’s affair is more shocking for the size of his mistress compared to his wife than for the infidelity. The depictions of married life are, in places, deeply disturbing. Even when abuse is recognised the reaction of neighbours is to look away.
While appreciating the unpleasant truth of the views portrayed the lack of balance detracted from my enjoyment. Kindnesses were shown in places but always, it seemed, with a degree of resentment. Perhaps I am naive in believing that people are not as self-obsessed as portrayed here. The writing may be piercing, the style fluid, but I did not derive pleasure from reading.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Viking.
Anything is Possible has been shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize 2017. It is the final book on this shortlist to be reviewed and the only one to have been selected by a panel of judges rather than by public vote.