ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE. By Elizabeth Strout. Random House. 254 pages. $27.
In many ways, all small towns are alike. They have eccentric characters, class issues, and a good and bad side of town. Everyone knows each other’s business in a small town.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Elizabeth Strout grew up in a small town in Maine and, anxious to escape, relocated to New York City, much like the narrator of her 2016 novel “My Name is Lucy Barton.”
Strout’s latest book, “Anything Is Possible,” is a collection of stories that feature many of the characters from her previous novel. Characters such as the pretty Nicely girls, who went to grade school with Lucy and have faced death and divorce among other challenges as they’ve grown up. It’s as if Strout wasn't quite ready to let go of the interesting characters she created in "Lucy Barton."
You don’t have to read "Lucy Barton" to appreciate “Anything is Possible,” but your satisfaction will be deeper if you do.
Strout is a master at creating the kind of complex characters who stay with you long after you finish reading. Think of Olive Kitteridge, from the 2008 novel of the same name, who, on the day of her son’s wedding, sneaks into her future daughter-in-law’s bedroom and draws a black line down the arm of her sweater. Olive is infuriating and endearing all at once. She is prickly and passionate and reminds you of someone you know, or someone you’d like to know.
Dottie Small is the kind of person readers will wish they knew.
After a childhood of poverty (“Had people known that Dottie and her brother had eaten from dumpsters when they were children, what would they make of it?”), Dottie has transformed herself into a successful business owner. In the story “Dottie’s Bed & Breakfast,” she hosts an affluent couple who are in town for an academic conference.
“They were from the East, and their name was Small. This Dottie always remembered, because the husband was so big, and he wore a look of fixed irritation that must have come, Dottie imagined, from a lifetime of responding to comments regarding his name.”
She is also an acute observer of others. One afternoon she finds herself alone with Shelly Small.
“She felt for Shelly. Any yet Dottie could tell by the light that had passed through the room that Shelly must have been talking for almost two hours. About herself. Oh, about Annie and David and her daughters, but really she was talking about herself. Had Dottie talked about herself for so long, she’d have felt that she had wet herself.”
Dottie knows that the difference between the women is related to culture and class, issues that “nobody ever talked about in this country, because it wasn’t polite.”
One of the most powerful stories, called “Sister,” describes Lucy Barton’s reunion with her brother and sister. Lucy has left her abusive childhood and made a name for herself as a successful writer in New York City, while her brother and sister stayed behind. Pete is a shut-in and Vicky is obese, and their differences are glaring when Lucy comes home to visit. Pete feels, with his two sisters in the same room, as though “his soul had a toothache,” and Vicky tells Lucy, “You make me sick.”
Strout demonstrates through simple back-and-forth dialogue that each sibling has survived in their own way. Lucy’s survival meant running away and, despite all the years and successes, coming home is too hard, so she runs away again, leaving Pete and Vicky behind.
“They drove in silence for many miles. From the corner of his eye, he watched his sister; he thought she was a good driver. He liked her bulkiness, the way she filled her seat and drove with such authority. He wished he could tell her this; he wished he could say something more than that she was great. He finally said, ‘Vicky, we didn’t turn out so bad you know.’ ”
Reviewer Amy Mercer is a freelance writer in Charleston.