Anything is Possible tells the story of the inhabitants of rural, dusty Amgash, Illinois, the hometown of Lucy Barton, a successful New York writer who finally returns, after seventeen years of absence, to visit the siblings she left behind.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this novel is how readable it is. I found myself having to ration out the book so that I wouldn’t consume it in a single sitting.
Yet this isn’t page-turning in the conventional sense. There’s no complex and clever plot to unravel, no sense of threat or intrigue to tease yourself with page after page. There’s just life as we all live it.
What makes it compelling is not that I want to know what happens next but that I want to know these people and, in the process, I want to know more about how their experiences mirror mine.
In each chapter, I get to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. It’s not a first-person experience but rather a guided tour with the authorial voice capturing every emotion, memory and reaction with an empathy so deep you could drown in it.
The book opens with an eighty-three-year-old man driving into town to buy his wife a birthday present and then stopping in on a neighbour on his way home. That’s it as far as action goes yet during this ride I found out about the events that shaped this man’s life, about his beliefs and his hopes, about his attachment to the bright but fearful and isolated Lucy Barton who was once a student at the school he was a janitor in and who now lives in New York City and is a writer of well-known books. I come to understand his ability to “live through” disaster, his impulse to help others and the relationship he believes he has with God.
There’s a whole novel, just in that one chapter. Each of the other eight chapters is like that, sweeping me along not just in someone’s story but in their current experience and choices. Each chapter focuses on someone who was in the supporting cast of characters when Lucy Barton was recalling her childhood in *My Name Is Lucy Barton”, In “Anything Is Possible”, each of them gets to be centre-stage for a while, the prime mover in their own universe. Each universe exercises a gravitational pull on at least one of the other universes in the book.
Each of the nine chapters could be seen as a free-standing short story describing how an individual sees the world, but we’re being offered more than a quilt of nine squares here. This is a novel with a consistent authorial voice, leading us through the thoughts and emotions of the characters in the story and in the process, highlighting the themes that connect them and all of us as we try to live our lives.
I see this novel as a three-dimensional piece of art that, although the eye first reads it from left to right, becomes something non-linear: a set of lenses viewing a common space but from different angles and different focal lengths. From their different perspectives, the chapters describe a central space, that we all recognise and share but can rarely regard clearly because we are so tangled up in our own stories. It’s a place where our hope, shame, anger, love, compassion and desires meet.
That all sounds rather complicated and perhaps a little dry but the experience of reading the book is one of easy access to sometimes painfully accurate experiences that resonate as real. Each room in the house is welcoming and built on a human scale. The true nature of the architecture only dawns on you later.
This is a book that, as one of the characters says of Lucy Barton’s novel, “made her feel understood and less alone”. There are big themes here but I believe the main one is that, while all our lives are unique, we do not have to be alone if we are prepared to forgive ourselves and others.
One of the themes of the book is the nature of love. One character sums it up by saying:
We’re all just a mess, Angelina, trying as hard we can. We love imperfectly, Angelina, and it’s ok.
One of my favourite characters, the youngest of the Pretty Nicely sisters, now sometimes called Fatty Patty by the children at the school she works in, understands that empathy is difficult because we are too self-absorbed to make space for it:
Everyone,she understood, was mainly and mostly interested in themselves.
She also understands that love is what breaks down the walls of our isolation and allows us to be better. She refers to it as a protective skin:
This was the skin that protected you from the world, this loving of another person you shared your life with.
The characters show us that we all love imperfectly BUT that it is still possible to choose our own path, to change the plot of our own story and to influence the stories of others:
One of the things that occupy that central space that the stories share is how our past shapes us. In the final chapter, the main character, once poor and now rich, is puzzled by the power of his past to shape his present:
“What puzzled Able about life was how much one forgot but then live with anyway, like a phantom limb”
In these stories, shame plays a huge part in shaping people’s perceptions of themselves and others. Shame walks hand in hand with attitudes to class. Both create ostracism, disempowerment, unkindness, and derision. They make some people less real than others. They erode self-worth and foster abuse.
Violence, whether we commit it or are on the receiving end of it, also leaves permanent scars, whether it’s PTSD from acts committed during a war on being subject to violent abuse throughout childhood.
I found one of the hardest chapters to experience was the one where Lucy Barton comes home and meets with her brother and her sisters in the tiny house they all suffered through their childhood in. The present pain caused by past abuse is almost unbearable. When the talk turns to the terrible things their parents did, Lucy cries out in denial and says “It wasn’t that bad”, all the while knowing that it was.
This is one of a number of examples that show how hard it is for us to see clearly, to remember honestly (or at all), and to focus on the important choices in our lives.
The message I took away from the book is that living through things we don’t is unavoidable. Life cannot be pain-free. We live and love imperfectly. We drag our past after us. Compassion, forgiveness and kindness are the best salves available to us.
I think this book will become a classic. I highly recommend it.
If you’d like to get an insight into what Elizabeth Strout thinks of her novel, read the interviews below.
Seattle Times article “Talking to author Elizabeth Strout about her new novel, ‘Anything Is Possible” where Elizabeth Strout explains how she wrote the book and comments on some of the themes in it.
Interview with Penguin Books where she talks about her hope that her books will make people feel less alone.
I listened to the audiobook, which was perfectly performed by Kimberly Farr. Click on the SoundCloud link below to listen to a sample of her performance.