On its face, Elizabeth Strout’s new novel, “Anything Is Possible,” keenly draws a portrait of a small town where options are few, where everyone’s business is everyone’s business, and where verdicts rendered while young follow you your whole life.
In that way, it joins a vast genre, and elevates it.
Yet between the lines, this novel is something more: Without a single battle scene, or image of gore, or impassioned speech about the horrors of human conflict, “Anything Is Possible” is a haunting damnation of war.
Strout, winner of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for “Olive Kitteridge,” presents a sequel of sorts to last year’s bestseller, “My Name Is Lucy Barton.” That novel, set in a hospital room, revolved around a mother’s surprise visit to her ailing daughter, Lucy Barton, who long ago left a brutally poor childhood in Amgash, Ill., to become a writer in New York City.
As mother and daughter delicately rekindle a relationship, they reminisce about common characters from the past, trading stories that are mostly poignant and often harrowing.
“Anything Is Possible” returns to those characters, but it’s set years later, after the events of the hospital chats have played out. The effect is a little disconcerting, as if meeting someone about whom you’ve only heard gossip.
Indeed, it’s not a bad idea to reread “Lucy Barton” before opening this one to reacquaint yourself with the townspeople of Amgash. For example, reading the name of Tommy Guptill in the opening chapter meant little until a reference about him being the school janitor.
The janitor! Without giving away too much, that word ignited a burst of recognition for the subtle kindness he once played in young Lucy Barton’s life, which then cast him in a new light for the rest of the chapter.
These “aha” moments happen throughout the novel. Its web of relationships is elegantly constructed, but attention must be paid.
A particularly strong strand anchoring this web is what war does to a man — and then to all in his circle.
“My father was in the war. He got all screwed up,” says Pete Barton, a hermit, trying to explain his World War II-era father’s temper and shameful behavior to Guptill, who listens sympathetically until learning that the veteran’s actions irrevocably upended Guptill’s own life.
Pete, too, is a victim of his father’s psychic war wounds, only hinted at in Strout’s earlier book. When Lucy Barton, now a successful author, returns to Amgash to see her brother, older sister Vicky also arrives, seething with resentment. Where the siblings might be bound by shared traumas, their individual memories only drive them apart.
Same with Charlie McCauley, with his memories of Vietnam. We learn of his service sideways through Patty Nicely. “How Patty knew this, she could not have said.”
But McCauley’s anguish leads to a series of encounters with Patty and others, which in turn draw on townspeople from the earlier book. In a less skilled hand than Strout’s, these interactions could seem contrived, even manipulative.
Instead, they make a sort of hapless sense, living where histories crisscross and ripple across avenues and state lines and distant trenches.
War is by no means the main theme of “Anything Is Possible.” If anything, the novel moves toward an unexpected optimism.
Yet war’s effects linger, as subtle as Pete Barton furtively moving his window blinds to see who’s outside: It’s a small action, but reveals so much.
Kim Ode is a Star Tribune features writer. @Odewrites
Anything Is Possible
By: Elizabeth Strout.
Publisher: Random House, 254 pages, $27.