While writing her 2016 novel “My Name Is Lucy Barton, ” Elizabeth Strout found herself “drawn to the constellation of characters surrounding Lucy’s childhood in Amgash, Illinois.” And so she began writing what became this new collection of gently linked stories. “Anything Is Possible” can easily be read without knowing the earlier book, and, in a way, it’s a greater achievement than that “source material.” These stories return Strout to the core of what she does more magnanimously than anyone else, which is to render quiet portraits of the indignities and disappointments of normal life, and the moments of grace and kindness we are gifted in response.
Such a simple goal, so difficult to achieve.
Each of these stories stands alone, but they are richer in juxtaposition to the others. And that’s because over the years, from angle after angle, Strout has been packing and unpacking how silence works — between people, within a single person, on the page, in the spaces between stories. Omission is where you find what makes a writer a writer; it is in the silences where forgiveness and wisdom grow, and it is where Strout’s art flourishes. This new book pushes that endeavor even further.
In one story, a high school janitor’s generous response to a neighbor’s long-held secret allows him to confess a secret of his own. Tommy, the janitor, believes that God came to him on the night, years earlier, when his barn burned down; the other man believes his father set the fire. Driving home after these shared revelations, Tommy feels “that he had pulled the plug on himself, that by telling the thing he would never tell he had diminished himself past forgiveness. It really frightened him.” But later, when he confides in his wife, he learns that “what he had kept from her their whole lives was, in fact, easily acceptable to her.”
In another story, a married Vietnam vet named Charlie Macauley is betrayed by the hooker he believes he’s in love with — not even her name is real. That night, Charlie ends up at a bed-and-breakfast, waiting for the accumulated pain of his life to release itself. “O sweet Jesus, let it come. Dear God, please, could you? Could you please just let it come?” Dottie, owner of the bed-and-breakfast, forever after recalls that night. She finds the memory of the sobbing man a palliative against the kind of guest who shows up, confesses secrets and, inexplicably, gets annoyed with Dottie for having listened: “As Dottie thought about this, going back and forth between the kitchen and the dining room, she saw Shelly Small as a woman who suffered only from the most common complaint of all: Life had simply not been what she thought it would be.”
My favorite of these stories is “Cracked,” about Linda’s complicity in her husband Jay’s hidden-camera spying and subsequent attempted sexual assault on their houseguest. “Linda did not comment as she got into bed next to her husband, and Jay did not comment either,” Strout writes, “although it was unusual these days for Linda to watch with him.” I love this particular one not for its delectable creepiness, but because of the sneaky completeness of its origin story: “In college in Wisconsin she met Jay, who with his intelligence and vast money seemed to offer a life that might catapult her away from the terrifying and abiding image of her mother alone and ostracized.” Linda is who she is because of events from her childhood, events we understand because we have read her sister Patty’s story and have information Linda will probably never know.
Beyond the nine stories in this volume, numerous others are touched upon and resolved without the heat of Strout’s direct gaze. For example, behind Linda’s story (and behind Charlie Macauley’s as well), is the tale of her sister Patty’s finally requited desire for Charlie. The fact that this pairing happens offstage, as it were, allows us to believe in all the possible good things that happen in the world that we aren’t privy to. Or responsible for.
In “My Name Is Lucy Barton,” an instructor tells aspiring writer Lucy that writers have only one story to tell: “You’ll write your story many ways.” Strout’s story is about the ways we carry the burden of our pasts through life, suffering wordlessly, when admitting out loud what has hurt could ease that pain.
I still treasure my coffee-stained copy of Strout’s first book, “Amy and Isabelle,” some two decades after publication. When a book startles you — teaches you that there are other ways to tell a story — you want to come back to it again and again. “Olive Kitteridge” did the same thing, demonstrating with the utmost grace that you can take away the linking bits of traditional novel structure and still get the whole story on the page. With “Anything Is Possible” — using the sum of its parts to paint the humanity of an entire community — Strout hits the target yet again.
Susan Scarf Merrell is the author, most recently, of “Shirley,” a novel about Shirley Jackson.
By Elizabeth Strout
Random House. 272 pp. $27