Anything Is Possible | Elizabeth Strout #USAfiction

Tommy Guptill had once owned a dairy farm, which he’d inherited from his father, and which was about two miles from the town of Amgash, Illinois.

Oh my, the good folk of Amgash, Illinois are an unhappy bunch. Thank goodness it is a fictional town!

Poverty, illness, domestic abuse, divorce, PTSD, secrets and affairs are all common occurrences in Anything is Possible. I know we all have our burdens to bear and difficult times, but for anyone living in Amgash, these trials and tribulations seem to be endless and enduring. It’s not just that love is imperfect; it’s flawed, destructive and often completely missing from the equation.

Take Tommy Guptill who begins this tale.

The reason why he once owned a dairy farm is because said dairy farm burnt down to the ground many years ago, causing him to move his family into town so he could take up the job of janitor at the local school. For those paying attention, yes this is the same, very kind (unnamed) janitor from My Name is Lucy Barton, who used to let Lucy stay behind after school in the warm classrooms.

It was not Tommy’s nature to regret things, and on the night of the fire – in the midst of his galloping fear – he understood that all that mattered in this world were his his and his children, and he thought that people lived their whole lives not knowing this as sharply and constantly as he did.

Tommy makes it his business to check in on Pete Barton, living alone in his old family home, every now and again. When he had the dairy farm, the Barton’s were his neighbours. He remembers Pete’s sister Lucy fondly and is very proud of her success as an author. But it is the secret that Pete reveals about the night the dairy farm burnt down that upsets Tommy’s memories of the past.

Like the two Olive Kitteridge books, in Anything is Possible, Strout gives us stories from various characters in Amgash that usually have a connection to Lucy Barton somehow. We catch glimpses of Lucy through their memories, but mostly each story is about their particular lot in life. It would seem that Lucy and Annie Appleby, the two who escaped their life in Amgash at a young age, are the only two who are successful and relatively happy in life.

We catch up with one of Kathie Nicely’s daughters’, Patty, who has become friends with Angelina Mumford, bonding over their emotional upheaval after their respective parents separated and divorced. Although for Angelina, her mother Mississippi Mary, didn’t leave until age 74, when she moved to Italy and married someone twenty years younger. Mary is another character who only finally found happiness and love by leaving Amgash.

Patty read Lucy’s book and was deeply moved by her ability to still love both her parents even after everything that had happened.

But Lucy loved them, she loved her mother, and her mother loved her! We’re all just a mess, Angelina, trying as hard as we can, we love imperfectly, Angelina, but it’s okay.

By the end of Anything is Possible though, I wasn’t so sure I agreed with this sentiment anymore.

There is imperfect love and then there is dysfunction. Lucy’s family was a dysfunctional family – poverty, abuse and neglect both psychological and emotional. The one chapter devoted to Lucy’s return to visit her brother and sister only highlighted that the effects of this dysfunction continued to impact on the lives of all three well into their adult lives.

This is not a happy story with a happy ending. My Name is Lucy Barton leaves the reader feeling hopeful that love and kindness have the potential to overcome anything. Anything is Possible leaves the reader feeling the exact opposite (or at least this reader) that anything may be possible in theory, but in real life, small-town USA, it probably isn’t.

Title: Anything is Possible
Author: Elizabeth Strout
ISBN: 9780241287972
Imprint: Viking (Penguin) 
Published: 4th May 2017
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 272

This post was written on the traditional land of the Budawang clan, within the south coast Yuin group. Dhurga is the Aboriginal language spoken from Jervis Bay to Wallaga Lake.

19 thoughts on “Anything Is Possible | Elizabeth Strout #USAfiction

    1. And a fine line between being a rose-coloured glasses optimist and deluding oneself…which is how I felt about Lucy by the end of the first book. During this book and Oh William! I was pleased to see that she allowed herself moment when she saw things more clearly and honestly.

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  1. I read this so long ago that many of the specifics have faded. I do recall that, yes, Amgash, Illinois was a very, very bleak place and that the Bartons were a pretty messed up bunch. At the end, I felt that while the characters were shaped by their horrible environment, some of them, particularly Lucy, were able to cope with dysfunction; while they’d never totally escape their environment’s effects on their personality, they nevertheless retained an ability to relate to others (“love” in a way) even if on a limited and narrow basis. Not an overwhelmingly feel good kind of message but, as your first comment noted, perhaps a realistic one!
    I became a Strout fan a little later than many. I liked Olive Kitteredge but I really became enthused with Lucy Barton. Have you had a chance to read Oh, William? Lucy returns, with more of her backstory. I thought it was great — and far less bleak than Anything is Possible.

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    1. Yes, I’ve just finished Oh William! and found it hard to keep out what I learnt about Lucy’s life in the final book from this review. I did enjoy seeing the personal growth and self-awareness that Lucy developed as she got older.

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  2. That is too much unhappiness. I mean I understand and I know that unhappiness is part of our lives but we have to find some hope, some redeeming quality or at the very least strive towards it. And I agree, there is imperfect love and there is dysfunctional and one cannot cover it under the rug of imperfect love! I have a feeling this one is not going to make it to my reading any time!

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    1. No I don’t think this is a good one for you right now Cirtnecce.
      As you say, we know that lots of people live impoverished, miserable lives, but having so many interconnected examples in the one small town was rather disheartening. The Trump era of politics highlighted to the rest of the world the vast divide between the two America’s; Strout’s book certainly presses the bruise that is the pain of small-town America.

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  3. I read Olive Kitteridge five or six years ago and it has faded from memory. I think, at some stage, I am going to have to start at the beginning and read Strout straight through. You make it sound very worthwhile, if occasionally bleak.

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    1. I love Strout’s writing, and given how she brings in characters from her other books, especially the Burgess boys, reading them in order would be beneficial.
      She really has an extraordinary ability with characterisation and allowing parts of the story to develop in silence, or between the lines. Lucy regularly reminds us that it is impossible to know everything about anyone or to really know another person. Strout is at home with this ambiguity.

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    1. I’m fascinated by what draws us as individuals to books, because I adored both Olive books, and while I valued my time with the Lucy trilogy, they are not my favourites.

      With Olive, I loved how Strout made me walk in the shoes of a tricky personality that wasn’t easy to like. It was much easier to like Lucy, but her story was more about her life journey, whereas with Olive you spent the whole time trying to work out what made her tick. Both stories, however, highlighted Strout’s ability to tell part of the story in the spaces in between.

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        1. As much as I enjoyed the series; it wasn’t the book. Olive was a much larger woman & even more brusque than Frances! But I had a few years between book & series so I didn’t mind the differences too much.

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