'Anything Is Possible' Explores The Unquiet Depths Of Ordinary Lives

May 2, 2017
Originally published on May 4, 2017 8:35 am

My timing has always been a little off with Elizabeth Strout. I've read and pretty much admired everything she's written, but, for whatever reason, the books of hers I've picked to review have been the good ones, like her debut Amy and Isabelle and The Burgess Boys, rather than the extraordinary ones, like Olive Kitteridge, which won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize.

At last, though, I think I'm in sync with Strout's peak performance cycle. Anything Is Possible is Strout's latest book and it's gorgeous.

Like Olive Kitteridge, Anything Is Possible reads like a novel constructed out of linked stories. In fact, it's hard to know exactly what to call this — a novel or a short story collection. In any case, these stories are animated by Strout's signature themes: class humiliation, loneliness, spiritual and sexual deprivation and, sometimes, reawakening.

When Strout is really on her game, as she is here, you feel like you've been carefully lowered into the unquiet depths of quiet lives.

Strout began working on Anything Is Possible at the same time she was writing her novel My Name Is Lucy Barton, which was published last year. Lucy, a dirt-poor child who grows up to become a celebrated writer, floats in and out of these interlocking stories. Some characters catch a glimpse of her being interviewed on TV; one travels to see her at a bookstore.

An older Lucy even appears "in the flesh" in one story when she returns home to the small town in rural Illinois where most of these tales are set to visit her troubled brother; but Anything Is Possible also stands on its own. Indeed, a few of the so called "hoity toity" characters here would be ticked off if they thought their stories depended in any way on that Barton girl, who was long ago mocked in school for having "cooties."

Strout's writerly eye works like a 360 degree camera, so that a character or place that's on the margins of one tale takes center stage in a later one. This technique sounds contrived, but Strout carries it off lightly.

One of the most powerful stories here is called "Dottie's Bed & Breakfast," which is an establishment we readers glimpse earlier in the book. Dottie aspired to be middle-class and she harbors a grudge against life because she's had to rent out rooms to make a living. Dottie also possesses a sensitive nose for sniffing out the lingering lower-class origins of some of her guests.

Indeed almost all of Strout's characters have sharp eyes and even sharper observations to make when it comes to that great American subject: class. "Shoes always gave you away," comments a woman in a story called "Cracked" about a houseguest's too-high cork wedges. And, in the final story here, called "Gift," a once-poor man made good says, "The sense of apology did not go away, it was a tiring thing to carry."

But, back to Dottie. When an elderly doctor and his wife come to stay at her guesthouse, Dottie bonds over tea with the wife, Shelley, who shares a story about a long-ago social humiliation.

At breakfast the next morning, however, Shelley obviously regrets that confidence and becomes the Doctor's wife again. She freezes Dottie out and puts her back in her place as the inn-keep.

There's comic satisfaction in seeing prim Dottie retaliate by secretly lobbing spit into the breakfast jam, but the more profound rewards of this story have to do with its recognition of the many varieties of human insecurity — or, as Lucy Barton herself more bluntly puts it, the many ways "people are always looking to feel superior to someone else."

Other stories have to do with sexual shame, or with the tragic ways close neighbors or family members misread each other; but I'm making Anything Is Possible sound too grim when, in fact, so many of these stories end in a understated gesture of forgiveness.

Strout is in that special company of writers like Richard Ford, Stewart O'Nan and Richard Russo, who write simply about ordinary lives and, in so doing, make us readers see the beauty of both their worn and rough surfaces and what lies beneath.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Elizabeth Strout is best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Olive Kitteridge," which was adapted into an HBO miniseries starring Frances McDormand. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review of Strout's new book "Anything Is Possible." Maureen says that Strout is partly returning to characters and themes she first introduced in her 2016 best-selling novel "My Name Is Lucy Barton." Here's Maureen's review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: My timing has always been a little off with Elizabeth Strout. I've read and pretty much admired everything she's written. But for whatever reason, the books of hers I've picked to review have been the good ones, like her debut "Amy And Isabelle" and "The Burgess Boys" rather than the extraordinary ones like "Olive Kitteridge," which won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize. At last though, I think I'm in sync with Strout's peak performance cycle. "Anything Is Possible" is Strout's latest book, and it's gorgeous.

Like "Olive Kitteridge," "Anything Is Possible" reads like a novel constructed out of linked stories. In fact, it's hard to know exactly what to call this, a novel or a short story collection. In any case, these stories are animated by Strout's signature themes - class humiliation, loneliness, spiritual and sexual deprivation and sometimes re-awakening. When Strout is really on her game, as she is here, you feel like you've been carefully lowered into the unquiet depths of quiet lives. Strout began working on "Anything Is Possible" at the same time she was writing her novel "My Name Is Lucy Barton," which was published last year.

Lucy, a dirt-poor child, who grows up to become a celebrated writer, floats in and out of these interlocking stories. Some characters catch a glimpse of her being interviewed on TV. One travels to see her at a bookstore. An older Lucy even appears in the flesh in one story when she returns home to the small town in rural Illinois, where most of these tales are set, to visit her troubled brother. But "Anything Is Possible" also stands on its own. Indeed, a few of the so-called hoity-toity characters here would be ticked off if they thought their stories depended in any way on that Barton girl, who was long ago mocked in school for having cooties.

Strout's writerly eye works like a 360-degree camera so that a character or place that's on the margins of one tale takes center stage in a later one. This technique sounds contrived, but Strout carries it off lightly. One of the most powerful stories here is called "Dottie's Bed And Breakfast," which is an establishment we readers glimpse earlier in the book. Dottie aspired to be middle class, and she harbors a grudge against life because she's had to rent out rooms to make a living. Dottie also possesses a sensitive nose for sniffing out the lingering lower-class origins of some of her guests.

Indeed, almost all of Strout's characters have sharp eyes and even sharper observations to make when it comes to that great American subject, class. Shoes always gave you away, comments a woman in a story called "Cracked" about a houseguest's too-high cork wedges. And in the final story here, called "Gift," a once-poor man made good says the sense of apology did not go away. It was a tiring thing to carry. But back to Dottie. When an elderly doctor and his wife come to stay at her guesthouse, Dottie bonds over tea with the wife, Shelley, who shares a story about a long ago social humiliation.

At breakfast the next morning, however, Shelley obviously regrets that confidence and becomes the doctor's wife again. She freezes Dottie out and puts her back in her place as the inn-keep. There's comic satisfaction in seeing prim Dottie retaliate by secretly lobbing spit into the breakfast jam. But the more profound rewards of this story have to do with its recognition of the many varieties of human insecurity, or as Lucy Barton herself more bluntly puts it, the many ways people are always looking to feel superior to someone else.

Other stories have to do with sexual shame or with the tragic ways close neighbors or family members misread each other. But I'm making "Anything Is Possible" sound too grim, when, in fact, so many of these stories end in an understated gesture of forgiveness. Strout is in that special company of writers, like Richard Ford, Stewart O'Nan, and Richard Russo, who writes simply about ordinary lives. And in so doing, make us readers see the beauty of both their worn and rough surfaces and what lies beneath.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Anything Is Possible" by Elizabeth Strout. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about the history of government-mandated housing segregation in 20th century America in the north. My guest will be Richard Rothstein, author of the new book "The Color Of Law." The government policies he writes about help explain how housing projects became predominantly black while suburbs became predominantly white. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARCUS ROBERTS' "A SERVANT OF THE PEOPLE")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer is Roberta Shorrock. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.