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'Anything Is Possible' stunning, quietly brilliant

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Elizabeth Strout’s latest an exceptional, engaging literary feat

One could argue that there are many great writers currently working – too many to list, really. There’s lots of literary talent out there producing exceptional work; it would be impossible to name them all.

But those of us who spend much of our time immersed in the printed page, we do have lists of our own. For each reader, there’s great and then there’s GREAT – and we tend to be pretty clear on who warrants all-caps status in our personal rankings.

I know I’m far from alone on this, but Elizabeth Strout is on my list.

The latest work from Strout is the aptly-titled “Anything Is Possible” (Random House, $27) - aptly-titled because she is the kind of writer who makes the reader believe that, well … anything IS possible. The vast depths of her talents are on full display in this new book, a collection of loosely-connected stories focusing on characters from last year’s exceptional “My Name is Lucy Barton.”

Each of these nine stories are built around a particular character pulled from Lucy Barton’s orbit, though many of them make appearances across multiple stories, showing up as a small (or not so small) part of another narrative. Reading through is like curling up under a well-worn, well-made afghan – there’s a sense of familiarity and warmth and the many connections also have space in which to breathe.

It’s that breathing room – that space – that differentiates Strout from so many of her peers. She has an uncanny brilliance for allowing her characters to form as they see fit, growing and changing to fill the spaces that Strout constructs for them. That combination of quiet dynamism in the lines and the compelling nature of what sits between them creates an unbelievably rich and nuanced world – one that can’t help but gently surround and subsume the reader.

Choosing the best and brightest from this nonet is a fool’s game; each of them is an extraordinary piece of stand-alone art. “Sister” is the story that brings Lucy Barton to the forefront as she returns home and reconnects for the first time in many years. “Windmills” follows high school guidance counselor Patty Nicely as she struggles to deal with her place in the community – and in the world – in the absence of her deceased husband. “The Hit-Thumb Theory” illustrates the sad, lonely mistakes made by Charlie Macauley in his search for feeling, thanks to his being drawn to the wrong people in wrong places. “Gift” is a shadowy and weird tale that largely plays out backstage after a theatrical production of “A Christmas Carol,” while “Mississippi Mary” offers a glimpse at a woman who doesn’t understand the impulses that led her mother to wind up in Italy with a new – and younger – companion.

In terms of highlights, your mileage will vary. They’re all fantastic. The reality is that every one of these stories is charged with a delicate power; each of them is carefully crafted and honed in such a way as to create something organic. As you read, you can almost hear the heartbeat.

“Anything Is Possible” exists on its own terms, both as far as its intra-story connectivity and in terms of its adjacency to a previous work. You could really read these stories in any order that you chose (though front-to-back is the way to go); you’re also fine if you’ve never read “My Name is Lucy Barton” (although if you haven’t, you might as well rectify that error while you’re at it).

Elizabeth Strout is one of the best writers of her generation, full stop. She manages to elicit the epic from the seeming mundanity of small-town life, doing so with exquisite prose and captivating characters. The narratives that she weaves have within them a distinct sense of truth that often proves elusive in contemporary literature.

In the end, “Anything Is Possible” deserves every capital letter you want to give it. It – just like its author – is GREAT.

Last modified on Thursday, 27 April 2017 14:07

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