Followers of Elizabeth Strout will find much to like, and much that’s familiar, in this new novel. It’s filled with her typical empathic realism, including strong characters, local color, love of nature, precarious human relationships, understated spiritual epiphanies, and the trademark Stroutian passion for life. I’m sorry to say, though, that the book disappoints even as it offers its own humble pleasures. It is at best a pale imitation of her strongest work.
Like much of her fiction, Anything Is Possible is a series of interconnected short stories – but these lack both the extraordinary characters and the seamlessness of previous works. Granted, Strout has a lot to live up to, being burdened now, forever, with the curse of Olive Ketteridge – that beautiful, tortured soul whose ravaged face and body communicate something so unearthly lovely that only Frances McDormand could carry it off.
“One convention of a novel made up of short stories is the jarring, often annoying, cold-water plunge from one chapter to the next.”
A beautiful novel transformed into a beautiful four-part HBO series, Olive Ketteridge can only serve to make Elizabeth Strout’s life hard forever – for what could live up to it? Her fifth novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton, makes a respectable stab at it – and the character of Lucy Barton does in fact make a sequel appearance in Anything Is Possible. But it’s more like a cameo appearance – and perhaps not such a successful one. In my mind the strongest characters in this book tend to be the males, including Tommy Guptill, the wealthy dairy owner turned noble school janitor, and Charlie McCarthy, the troubled — but noble — Vietnam vet.
The idea of seamlessness, though, is particularly important when it comes to a collection of short stories meant to add up to a novel. One convention of such a collection is the jarring, often annoying, cold-water plunge from one chapter to the next. Just when we’re into the story, and taking to the characters, they’re gone, and a new story takes their place. A natural resentment occurs, and the skillful writer — ever the manipulator — creates this antipathy, then quickly maneuvers to dispel it. She does this either by creating a new, equally strong story, or by dropping small, incidental links to the previous chapter, or both. Too little of this technique successfully occurs in this book.
A greater irony is that Strout’s controlling theme adds new seams not ordinarily found in such collections. The title, Anything Is Possible, not only echoes the Bible (“With God all things are possible”), but suggests the American Dream. In the world of this novel, though, the American Dream works in all directions: “People had always kept moving, her mother had said. Moving west, moving south, marrying up, marrying down, getting divorced, but moving.”
“The rich become poor while the poor become rich, if not also famous and beautiful.”
And so we see in the novel’s characters — many of whom experience wide swings of fortune, mindful of the medieval philosophy Rota Fortunae, or wheel of fortune. The rich become poor while the poor become rich, if not also famous and beautiful. Although this device can make for some interesting drama, it is simply less relatable than most of Strout’s storytelling. We’re all mindful these days, I think, of the much-discussed reality that precious little social mobility occurs in America, in any direction.
The upshot is a work less emotionally satisfying than other Elizabeth Strout stories. We can only hope she doesn’t feel the stress of Olive too fiercely for the rest of her career. I would counsel perspective for the author by letting her know that if I had created such a thing as Olive Kitteridge, I would be feeling my life fully justified, and taking a long, well-deserved vacation. I suspect, though, we can all feel confident, and lucky, that she won’t be taking my advice.