Mimi Jones Hedwig

Writer, Editor, Animal Advocate

Book review blog

Anything is Possible, and My Name is Lucy Barton - by Elizabeth Strout

Posted by mhedwig on August 6, 2017 at 8:00 PM

ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE is brilliant, but it is not a novel, though some reviews and ads have represented it as such. It is, in fact,  interconnected short stories or novellas, most centering on the same small Illinois town and its inhabitants (with one far-fetched digression into the story of a tangential character, Annie Appleby). Each story is discrete, each with its own arc and its own  resolution. There is no through-line of plot; only the character of Lucy Barton, former outcast poor girl turned famous writer, loosely connects most of the stories. In short, to call this work of fiction a novel strikes me as a dishonest marketing ploy aimed at circumventing the stigma that short stories, or novellas, don't sell. 

The stories are powerful, with one exception: I found "Mississippi Mary," about a grown daughter's visit to her divorced and remarried mother in Italy tedious and sentimental. But most are laser-like in their penetration to the core of their characters' vulnerabilities, quirks, defenses. Relationships take surprising turns. Not one person is sexually healthy or satisfied. People save one another from despair by quiet acts of forgiveness and kindness. That is the one fact that brings light to the general darkness of Strout's view of life and human nature. 

Below is my review of  this book's prequel, Strout's novel MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON

Pointillistic account --the reader has to connect the sparsely-placed dots of plot and character development. The story centers on Lucy Barton's recalling, in artfully artless first person narrative, a period of time when she was in the hospital in NYC for weeks with a mysterious fever after an appendectomy. Scared, sad, missing her two young girls and her husband, Lucy is comforted by the arrival of her mother from Illinois. Her mother stays with her for several days, never appearing to sleep, occasionally and uncharacteristically gushing with conversation as if from a blocked up fountain -- but, at the critical moments of revelation which Lucy has longed for all her life, the older woman clams up. What was her mother afraid of in her own childhood? "Mommy" (as Lucy, revealingly, continues to call her as an adult) won't say. Does she love her daughter? - Lucy understands that "I love you" is something her mother can't utter, and won't, ever. This hospital vigil, though, offers Lucy comfort and clearly the sense of being loved.

Lucy recalls her childhood in horrific flashes: being locked in her father's truck for hours as punishment. Being teased and ostracized because of the smell of poverty she emanates; being given charity Thanksgiving meals. Those moments when her father, a traumatized WWII veteran, loses control of himself and "the Thing" emerges (only much later, glancingly, do we learn what sexual ugliness the Thing seems to involve). Lucy's marriage to William, son of German immigrants; since her father's trauma involves his wartime interactions with Germans, Lucy has to keep her husband away from her parents. She and he settle in New York City.

A chance meeting with a shy, rather ditzy seeming writer in a Soho boutique leads Lucy to take a workshop with this woman, pursuing a dream that has been vivid in her since childhood: to escape her disturbing reality through writing. The teacher encourages Lucy and tells her to be ruthless. Ruthlessly honest about the one story she has to tell -- that of her childhood. Problems in Lucy's marriage are alluded to -- but "I'm not able to write about that," Lucy tells the reader.

As the book moves into Lucy's post-hospital life the storytelling style becomes sparser, the dots wider apart. There become more and more things that Lucy seems unable to reveal. We get just enough to put together into a coherent account of her becoming a successful writer, serving her gift with life decisions that cause her and those she loves pain - ruthless in life as in her work.

I was interested but found the book too minimalistic to fully engage my deepest emotions


Categories: Fiction