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'Anything Is Possible' Explores The Unquiet Depths Of Ordinary Lives

My timing has always been a little off with Elizabeth Strout. I've read and pretty much admired everything she's written, but, for whatever reason, the books of hers I've picked to review have been the good ones, like her debut Amy and Isabelle and The Burgess Boys, rather than the extraordinary ones, like Olive Kitteridge, which won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize.

At last, though, I think I'm in sync with Strout's peak performance cycle. Anything Is Possible is Strout's latest book and it's gorgeous.

Like Olive Kitteridge, Anything Is Possible reads like a novel constructed out of linked stories. In fact, it's hard to know exactly what to call this — a novel or a short story collection. In any case, these stories are animated by Strout's signature themes: class humiliation, loneliness, spiritual and sexual deprivation and, sometimes, reawakening.

When Strout is really on her game, as she is here, you feel like you've been carefully lowered into the unquiet depths of quiet lives.

Strout began working on Anything Is Possible at the same time she was writing her novel My Name Is Lucy Barton, which was published last year. Lucy, a dirt-poor child who grows up to become a celebrated writer, floats in and out of these interlocking stories. Some characters catch a glimpse of her being interviewed on TV; one travels to see her at a bookstore.

An older Lucy even appears "in the flesh" in one story when she returns home to the small town in rural Illinois where most of these tales are set to visit her troubled brother; but Anything Is Possible also stands on its own. Indeed, a few of the so called "hoity toity" characters here would be ticked off if they thought their stories depended in any way on that Barton girl, who was long ago mocked in school for having "cooties."

Strout's writerly eye works like a 360 degree camera, so that a character or place that's on the margins of one tale takes center stage in a later one. This technique sounds contrived, but Strout carries it off lightly.

One of the most powerful stories here is called "Dottie's Bed & Breakfast," which is an establishment we readers glimpse earlier in the book. Dottie aspired to be middle-class and she harbors a grudge against life because she's had to rent out rooms to make a living. Dottie also possesses a sensitive nose for sniffing out the lingering lower-class origins of some of her guests.

Indeed almost all of Strout's characters have sharp eyes and even sharper observations to make when it comes to that great American subject: class. "Shoes always gave you away," comments a woman in a story called "Cracked" about a houseguest's too-high cork wedges. And, in the final story here, called "Gift," a once-poor man made good says, "The sense of apology did not go away, it was a tiring thing to carry."

But, back to Dottie. When an elderly doctor and his wife come to stay at her guesthouse, Dottie bonds over tea with the wife, Shelley, who shares a story about a long-ago social humiliation.

At breakfast the next morning, however, Shelley obviously regrets that confidence and becomes the Doctor's wife again. She freezes Dottie out and puts her back in her place as the inn-keep.

There's comic satisfaction in seeing prim Dottie retaliate by secretly lobbing spit into the breakfast jam, but the more profound rewards of this story have to do with its recognition of the many varieties of human insecurity — or, as Lucy Barton herself more bluntly puts it, the many ways "people are always looking to feel superior to someone else."

Other stories have to do with sexual shame, or with the tragic ways close neighbors or family members misread each other; but I'm making Anything Is Possible sound too grim when, in fact, so many of these stories end in a understated gesture of forgiveness.

Strout is in that special company of writers like Richard Ford, Stewart O'Nan and Richard Russo, who write simply about ordinary lives and, in so doing, make us readers see the beauty of both their worn and rough surfaces and what lies beneath.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.