Anything is Possible. Elizabeth Strout.

Strout, Elizabeth. Anything is Possible. Random House, New York, 2017. F;5/17

Sometimes I get behind on my book reviews, and this one got away from me. There were written notes but I can’t find them, and I only highlighted one long passage. Please consider this review an exercise in denial of short-term memory impairment. I read this out of sync in respect of publishing chronology, before My Name is Lucy Barton, published earlier.

Like her Pulitzer winner Olive Kitteridge (which I remember quite well and – like everyone else – was pretty thrilled with) this is a collection of short fiction (nine pieces) that clusters around characters living in a small community. It’s very good, but trusting to my memory both of it and of Kitteridge I found it more harsh toward characters’ flaws. Maybe more emotionally realistic but a bit less graceful.

Amgash, Illinois is fictional; I haven’t looked into what it might represent in Strout’s life or past. The place and the characters are poor and struggling with that among other things. Lucy Barton would be the most technically autobiographical of them, a successful author who escaped and made it to New York. Her family who grew up in a garage is disordered, abusive and chaotic. Her brother who is probably gay suffers the kind of trouble you would expect in that family and community.

My highlight from this book involves another of the families, the mother of which left her husband and went to live in Europe with another man. The daughter Angelina who for various reasons uniquely among her siblings for years avoided visiting her mother now spends some time with her in the little seaside Italian town where she lives. The now middle-aged daughter reflects on not wanting her mother to leave being put to bed by her parents as a child. But she has the kind of catalogue of complaints about her mother that many of us develop during adulthood. From the window of the little apartment she watches the mother help an old man across the street.

And she knew, Angelina knew, that she had seen something important when her mother helped the man who was unsteady crossing the street. Briefly – it would be brief, Angelina knew this, she knew she would always be the child – but briefly the ceiling had been raised; she pictured her mother’s quick and gracious loveliness to that man on the street: A street in a village on the coast of Italy, her mother, a pioneer.

There’s a lot of what makes Elizabeth Strout worth reading there. The terrible business of parents and children, brevity and flight of enormous insights, and (dare I say it) beauty.

Too bad I can’t remember anything detailed about this book. I hope I can find something more coherent to say about Lucy Barton. But I think I can conclude that it’s my own worried childhood and grand-parental roots in poverty and messed-up parenthood that encourage me to fall for Elizabeth Strout’s brand of sentiment.


About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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