It's a companion, a follow-up if you will (but not a sequel) to her last novel, My Name is Lucy Barton. Which was fantastic and spare and a perfect example of Strout's phenomenal carefulness in her writing. I loved it for all those reasons. I love Anything is Possible for completely different reasons.
It's a collection of linked stories, not unlike Strout's Olive Kitteredge. Each of the stories showcases a particular character referenced in My Name is Lucy Barton. In My Name, conversations with her mother over the span of a few days reference a host of do-you-remembers, and whatever-happened-tos involving offscreen characters that are delightfully interesting in their own right. Anything is Possible is full of these rich characters rendered fully alive in chapter after chapter of delicately connected stories.
The themes running throughout is one of the things I love about the book. Centering around Amgash, Illinois, many of the stories involve poverty--the overcoming of it, the experience of shame within it, as well as the experience of having no shame growing up in it. Strout looks at the issue of rural, very American-style poverty from a variety of angles through these stories, shedding fresh light from each angle on a complex issue. Veterans also make frequent appearances throughout the stories, and Strout explores the ways they return from war changed, and in turn changing those around them. Another theme running throughout is the tension (often only internal) between staying and leaving your small town roots, as well as how painful returning can be.
The other thing I love about this book is that it is not spare. In fact, it's luxuriously sprawling. I felt like I'd found a giant box of sentimental keepsakes. It was so dang satisfying to get to read into all these characters lives, enjoy the bird's eye view into a town's connections, and find each character living lives large with meaning even in the midst of harsh pain and loss. Perhaps the characters did not see or feel this meaning, certainly no one walked around their chapter in a blissed out state, but the reader can detect the depth.
The opportunity to see these characters play out their own destinies beyond their several sentences of introduction in My Name is Lucy Barton was a deep pleasure. It reminded me of the experience of reading L.M. Montgomery as a young impressionable reader. Of course I adored Anne of Green Gables, but I also found Montgomery's collections of spin off stories and novels fascinating--books like Rilla of Ingleside (based on Anne's daughter), Jane of Lantern Hill, and the Story Girl. They expanded the universe Anne lived in even when they had no direct connection to Anne's storyline. Prince Edward Island still looms high on my list of places to visit in this lifetime.
Super satisfying read all around. Quick note: I was glad to have had the chance to re-read My Name is Lucy Barton first; having these characters fresh in my easily distractible memory prior to reading Anything is Possible made the experience even more enjoyable. I think you could still enjoy Anything is Possible on it's own, but you'd miss out a bit, so I recommend starting with My Name is Lucy Barton if you haven't read it already. And it's a really great re-read, all the more so because it is so spare and you can devour the whole thing in one or two sittings really.
If you are in the bay area, join me at Kepler's Books in Menlo Park on May 11th for an Elizabeth Strout appearance, or find her near you here: http://www.elizabethstrout.com/appearances/ .