If you have ever lived in a small town, where everyone knows everyone and everyone knows everyone’s darkest secrets, then Amgash, Illinois and its cast of characters will seem really familiar to you. In a series of short stories, Elizabeth Strout moves from one character to another — most of the time the people in the tales being told are linked by blood or friendship, and so over the course of about a year, the lives of Strout’s characters weave together, with Strout checking back in on some of them periodically using that favorite small-town pastime, gossip.
But Strout’s stories aren’t just about a small Midwestern town and the people in it. They’re about how people strive to escape their pasts: some succeed, and some don’t, and the ones who don’t succeed have to decide how to live with their failure. Some of those living with their failure, live with grace; others wouldn’t know grace if it whacked them in the face.
I’d say the struggles of Strout’s characters are summed up in this quote from one of the stories (a tale of an overnight guest who talks too much): “[she was] a woman who suffered only from the most common complaint of all: Life had simply not been what she thought it would be. [She] had taken life’s disappointments and turned them into a house. A house that, with the clever use of the right architects, had managed to stay within the legal code yet become a monstrosity as large as [her] needs.”
There are a couple of characters who will stay with me, especially the dairy farmer-turned-janitor who suffers misfortune and yet never stops being kind. Honestly, I look back at my own life and see lessons I could learn from Strout’s characters, and for that alone I recommend Anything is Possible.
One quick note: these short stories are an extension of one of Strout’s previous novels, My Name is Lucy Barton, but you don’t have to read that book in order to read this one.