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July 28, 2017

Anything Is Possible

by Anne Paddock

Before you pick up the book, Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout, do yourself a favor and read My Name is Lucy Barton first. Both books stand alone as good reads but collectively these fictional stories are even better because the first book sets the stage and introduces a cast of colorful characters whose lives intertwine in the most bizarre ways in the second book.

At the center of both stories is Lucy Barton, an accomplished author who grew up dirt poor in a small midwestern town where everyone knew who she was but where only a few tried to help her. With nothing but talent and a belief in herself, she escapes to New York City and makes a life for herself, but she doesn’t leave her past behind, and the locals haven’t forgotten about her.

In My Name is Lucy Barton, the emphasis is on Lucy and her immediate family while the focus is on the characters that were part of Lucy Barton’s childhood in Anything Is Possible. Together, the books provide the reader with a complex view of small town life in the midwest where

You could buy a snow blower or a nice wool dress for your wife, but beneath it all people were rats scurrying off to find garbage to eat, another rat to hump, making a nest in broken bricks, and soiling it so sourly that one’s contribution to the world was only more excrement.

Together, the books remind me of Saturn and the spectacular rings and numerous moons that surround one of the most interesting planets in our universe. Lucy is the shining star whose story is both heartbreaking and heroic but the people in her orbit are no less interesting as they struggle with their own lives. They shine brightly on the pages. There are the Nicely sisters who grew up on the right side of the tracks but made concessions along the way; and Tommy Guptill – a one-time dairy farmer turned school janitor when misfortune hit – who understood “that all that mattered in this world were his wife and his children” (a wiser man there isn’t); and Lucy’s cousin, Abel Blaine who also traded small time life for opportunity.

Shame, jealousies, lunacy, perversion, scandals, and family secrets weave in and out of the nine chapters that tie the characters’ lives together in Anything Is Possible – an apt title for a book that shows how crippling life experiences really are even if they can be contained. Those who managed to build a better life never truly escaped the trauma, embarrassment, shame, and memories  of their early lives; they simply found ways to contain it.

People always kept moving, her mother had said, it’s the American way. Moving west, moving south, marrying up, marrying down, getting divorced – but moving.

An amazing book that is hard to put down, Anything Is Possible tells the stories of people whose lives intertwine in the most interesting of ways.

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