The Premise: Elizabeth Strout’s previous novel, My Name is Lucy Barton, was a beautifully subtle look at how its title character was affected by her less than lovely upbringing. Anything is Possible acts as a kind of companion piece, focusing on the small town Lucy came from and its people, with some of them reminiscing about Lucy as she becomes a famous novelist.
Thoughts: I loved My Name Is Lucy Barton (if you’re unfamiliar with the book, you can find my review here) so I was very excited to read Anything is Possible. Part of what I enjoyed about Lucy was its intimate scope; it’s a really close character study, with a huge part of the novel taking place in one room and focusing on just two characters – Lucy and her mother. Anything is Possible takes a different approach, with a much more numerous cast of characters and, although some sections venture out of the small town location, most of the book takes place in Amgash, Illinois. So it’s a slightly different proposition, although the links between the two books make it seem somehow familiar and comforting (even as the recollections of the characters are less than appealing).
Anything is Possible reads more like a series of interconnected short stories than a novel; there are lots of overlaps between the sections, particularly as the different characters recall Lucy and reflect on her newfound success. The book begins with Tommy Guptill, a high school janitor who shared a bond with Lucy, based on his sympathy for her home life, which was covered in more detail in My Name is Lucy Barton. It’s a clever way for Strout to establish the links between the two books, while still introducing new characters and situations, and it’s a technique which is repeated throughout.
A key feature of the first book was Lucy’s empty relationship with her cold and distant mother, and this idea is reflected in Anything is Possible, with a handful of mothers who left their families. I’ve not read any of Strout’s other books, but I’d be interested to do so and see if this theme of mothers and daughters is repeated elsewhere in her work. In Anything is Possible, for example, we see a grown-up daughter trying to reestablish her relationship with her mother after the latter leaves the family home for a new marriage in Italy; as in Lucy Barton, Strout seems to emphasise the fragility of these bonds, while at the same time showing their perseverance. In Anything is Possible, you’ll also find disintegrating marriages and their associated crises, family feuds and simmering feelings, both affectionate and less so.
In Conclusion: like Lucy Barton, Anything is Possible is subtle and beautifully written, with the same sparsity and lack of melodrama as the first book, even as the scope widens to include more characters. The recurring themes of mundane unhappiness and the difficulty of escaping it are a further link between the two books, and the way in which different characters respond to Lucy’s apparent achievement in escaping is one of the most intriguing parts of the book. It’s not all about Lucy though, so, if you haven’t read My Name Is Lucy Barton, that shouldn’t be an obstacle to reading Strout’s new book (although you should definitely read both, obviously).