Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout is a contemporary fiction novel about a whole cast of characters. Many are mentioned in Strout’s book, My Name is Lucy Barton, so it did pay to read that book first. This novel follows a bunch of different people who all happened to live in the same small town during the same time period; the book opens with Tommy Guptill who worked at Lucy’s school as a janitor – he’s driving along remembering how Lucy would stay after school everyday just reading and completing her homework. He’s glad Lucy has become a famous author and thinks about her from time to time. Tommy points out how Pete Barton, Lucy’s brother, lives in the house the whole family used to stay in. Pete is grown, but never married and never had children. Tommy happens to see the old Barton house, so he decides to stop and check on Pete who is usually alone and was an outcast while he was in school. He was bullied at school and was not treated very well at home either.
Tommy reminds readers that he is retired from his job as the school janitor by the time we are reading the book and that all of the children that he remembers from when he worked are all grown now and have children of their own. Tommy is married and tells readers the story about his barn burning down to the ground many years ago, but that he believed that God’s presence was there. Tommy handles the burning down of his barn pretty well.
The novel tells the present day stories and memories of many characters mentioned in the novel My Name is Lucy Barton; it features Patty Nicely, Linda Peterson-Cornell, Charlie Macauley, “Mississippi Mary”, Pete, Lucy and Vicky Barton, Dottie Blaine, Elgin Appleby, Annie Appleby, Jamie Appleby – Annie’s older brother, and Abel Blaine. We learn that Patty Nicely works at the school now as a counselor/adviser for the students; that Vicky’s daughter attends the school and has such good grades that she could probably get a full-ride scholarship to a college. Apparently Patty has gained weight over the years and some of the students, meanly, call her “Fatty Patty” behind her back. Patty tells Vicky’s daughter that she could attend college if she keeps her grades up and stays out of trouble as best she is able to – this news is somewhat shocking to Vicky because she never envisioned herself having the opportunity to attend college or even leave the small town in which she was born and has grown up. The idea of leaving the small town is more appealing than attending college for Vicky’s daughter.
Linda Peterson-Cornell is involved in some shady and seemingly illegal behavior/acts with her husband (a total sleaze) and unsuspecting guests. From what readers can tell, she doesn’t participate in any of the non-consensual sex acts with guests that her husband does, but doesn’t stop him or report the crimes either. Pretty disgusting things going on there. Charlie Macauley is a married man who is cheating on his wife with a prostitute, professional trollop or professional escort (whichever job title you prefer to give the adultress) and it seems as though this relationship or extra-marital affair has been going on for a while. Charlie’s wife thinks that he is going to mental health appointments and group therapy appointments when, in fact, he is spending his afternoons with some tramp in a hotel room a few towns over. It’s not clear exactly how he feels about this arrangement or the woman in it, but he does admit to loving her, it’s clear he no longer feels the same way about his wife as he did when he first married her and that Charlie is not to be trusted. “Mississippi Mary” ended up divorcing her husband and father of their children and moved to Italy. One of her children is visiting her in Italy when we catch up with Mary; she has accepted her life as it is, but her daughter still appears to have difficulty coping with the split, but she is also having difficulty in her own marriage and doesn’t know what to do about it or how to save it. Either way, it sounds like Mary’s first marriage wasn’t working for her or the man she was married to.
Pete, Lucy and Vicky Barton get together while Lucy is near the small town traveling for her book tour; she is staying in Chicago, but is able to rent a car and drive from there to the small town to see her family. While they are sitting in the house talking, some pretty dreadful memories get brought up by usually Pete or Vicky, but all of these troubling memories cause Lucy to have a panic attack in the house and demand that her siblings stop talking about all of those bad experiences. She has to enlist their help getting her back to Chicago, but it seems as though Lucy cuts her visit short after Pete and Vicky start talking about their not-so-fond memories of living in the house with their parents. If this is how Lucy responds each time she visits with her siblings, then it’s no wonder she rarely returns home. Dottie Blaine owns a bed and breakfast which she has been running for years; this is the same bed and breakfast that Mr. Charlie Macauley stayed in years ago and it’s where he met Dottie who remembers him as being in unmistakable pain, but could never figure out what it was that was bothering him or causing him so much pain. She is the sister to Abel Blaine and has one of the least scandalous stories in the novel. Dottie houses two guests who happen to be acquainted with Annie Appleby.
Readers learn about the Appleby family and what it was like for Annie growing up. How she was different from her siblings and other kids her age at the time, how she enjoyed doing different things such as reading, spending time in the woods alone and other behaviors. She ends up leaving the small town also and becoming a fairly famous person, but when she returns as an adult, she finds out a pretty shocking secret her father had kept from the family for years. However, after learning this information, Annie is able to make sense of why her father was so adamant about her staying out of the woods and not going into the woods exploring by herself. Lastly, we learn a little bit about Abel Blaine – the second sanest person in the story. Abel has a family to include grandchildren whom he loves and would do anything for. Abel is probably one of my favorite characters in the novel because his story seemed the most realistic and he seemed like a pretty normal guy. Although everyone in the story had some sort of traumatic or simply rough childhood due to poverty or other problems, many turned out ok and some even excelled past the expectations they had for themselves or that others had for them.
Overall the book is ok, but kind of boring at times. Some stories were interesting to read, but others were just annoying and bad – like the story of Charlie and his mistress. I don’t agree with adultery and it didn’t endear Charlie to me in any way. I actually felt sorry for his dutiful wife sitting at home thinking he’s going out to get the mental health treatment he so desperately needs, but instead he’s out spending time with some tramp he thinks he’s in love with. Major eye roll on that one. Or what about the story of Linda Peterson-Cornell? Seriously, what kind of wife helps her husband commit criminal sex acts with a guest, thereby helping her husband cheat on her? Who, in their right mind, would do that? I simply cannot wrap my head around that and no explanation will help. I’m not a fan of the ending either – what is going on with Abel on a medical level? Is he having a heart attack? If so, what is the degree or level? Is it a massive heart attack? Did he make it to the hospital alive? Were the doctors able to identify the problem and save his life? I don’t really like an ending that leaves me wondering if the character is alive or dead. Was the author too lazy to write that much of the novel? Anyway, I didn’t like this novel better than My Name is Lucy Barton, but it did inspire me to be a bit more choosy about the books I grab by Elizabeth Strout because not all of her books are created equal.
I would recommend this book to fans of Elizabeth Strout or her style of writing and avid readers looking for a book to help them crush their reading challenge. I purchased a paperback copy of the book at Barnes and Noble a few years ago when they were having a sale on certain paperback books – a buy two get the third one 50% off or free or something like that. B&N has the paperback available for $15.50 or you can grab a hardcover copy for $7.00. However, knowing what I know now about the book, I probably wouldn’t have purchased a new copy of the book and would have tried to find a copy at my local library first. I definitely wouldn’t pay full price for the novel again after reading it, but I would check it out from a library or purchase it at a used bookstore for about $10-$11 cheaper than in big retail book stores.
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