Thursday, 12 April 2018

Anything is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout

This is the second volume of stories concerning Lucy Barton, that damaged little girl who managed to escape her horrific upbringing in a small Midwestern town to make a name for herself in New York as a writer – not without more damage on the way; her first marriage is over; her girls are grown and have their own lives (in fact they barely get a mention in this volume), and she has married again: now, because she is on a national tour to promote her latest book and has reached Chicago, not far from her birthplace, she feels it is time to be brave, bite the bullet and make contact again with the surviving members of her family, her sister Vicky and brother Pete.

As in ‘Olive Kitteridge’, (my Fave! see review below)Lucy’s tale is continued in a short story format, introducing characters who knew her family and her as a child, like Tommy Guptill who originally employed Lucy’s father on his dairy farm until the night the barns burned down and he and his family were left with nothing: he got a job as janitor for the local high school and was sad to see that Lucy Barton was always the last to leave the classroom; in fact he came upon her there one night as she slept: she was there because it was warm. Now he is trying to coax her brother Pete out into the world again, for Pete has become a recluse and needs to see that the world is not as frightening as Pete believes. Unfortunately for Tommy’s hard-won peace of mind, his overtures of friendship reveal a secret that should have stayed buried.

And the Nicely family – the Pretty Nicely girls, the town called the daughters: they looked down on Lucy’s family and rightly so, them being so dirt-poor, but the girls’ Mama used Mrs Barton from time to time for sewing and alterations: it was the least she could do – until it was eventually revealed that Mrs Nicely lived in a Glass House, and her days of throwing stones were over. Her behaviour and subsequent divorce for adultery had such an impact on the Pretty Nicely girls that their small town lives were changed forever, especially Patty Nicely, who has taken refuge in food and is known at the high school where she works as a Guidance councillor as Fatty Patty. Unfortunately too for Fatty Patty, she has to advise Lucy’s niece Lila, daughter of Vicky, on future career options: Lila is feeling rebellious and insulting, especially about Patty’s weight and the meeting degenerates into a horrible slanging match – which doesn’t surprise Patty; it’s typical of that family! Until she decides to buy a copy of Lucy’s latest book, prominently displayed in the local bookshop – and unexpectedly finds optimism and positive truths that she can apply to her own circumstances.

Lucy’s meeting with Vicky and Pete takes place, but produces such a flood of awful reminiscences (like the time their mother came home to find that Vicky was crying over something that had happened at school; she couldn’t stand the children to cry, so when Vicky couldn’t stop she got her shears and cut up every piece of Vicky’s clothing – then sewed it all back together like horrible patchwork so that Vicky had something to wear the next day) that she has a panic attack and is forced flee back to Chicago and the safe anonymity of her other life. Her brother and sister have to stay where they are: they have nowhere to flee to.

Ms Strout has produced another small masterpiece of connections near and far, with characters as finely wrought as a Vermeer painting and prose as lucid and clear as the light he painted so beautifully: how fortunate are we to enjoy such literary wealth.


Find this book in the library

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