Anything is Possible Too Saccharine

Elizabeth Strout
Random House, 254 pages

When Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer Prize in2009 for Olive Kitteridge I thought I'd be reading her forever. Now I think I may have been hasty. Nothing she since done matches the acerbic tone of Olive Kitteridge, nor have her subsequent female characters possessed a fraction of Olive's resolve and grit. Strout seems to be becoming a "women's" writer. I have trouble with exclusivity of all sorts: women's music, black entertainment, gay film, men's magazines, identity-segregated college dorms …. I had hoped we had moved beyond 1970s conscious-raising tactics. But that's another matter. Contemporary women's literature—and its tacky younger cousin, chick lit—crosses the border between sentiment and sentimentality and often descends into mawkishness and nostrums. Worse, characters too often wallow in victimhood. I could hardly stomach the whininess and passivity of the titular character in Strout's previous work, My Name is Lucy Barton. Lucy's ultimate "triumph" of settling in New York and becoming a writer seems more accidental than anything she accomplished on her own. (Heaven save us from another damn novel where the protagonist becomes a successful novelist. That's fiction within fiction as only handful of authors in the entire country sustain themselves by writing alone.)

As much it grieves me to say it, the only people I know who liked Lucy Barton were women, as were nearly all of the reviewers.  Thus far the same breakdown is true for Anything is Possible. It is a quirky sequel to Lucy Barton melded to an Illinois version of Spoon River Anthology—nine tales involving people and communities mentioned in Lucy Barton. Barton appears in just one of the chapters, a story of her first post-success visit home. In it, Barton is shocked to find that a relative has fallen upon hard times and outwardly resents her success. Lucy dispenses fairy-like kindness and Florence Nightingale charity, though one wonders how someone who has been living in New York could be so surprised to find people living on the margins. Lucy haunts all nine tales—as the one who escaped, a role model, an idle thought, someone to begrudge, or an unsolved mystery. Strout's small town life (mostly the fictional Amgash) has virtues and challenges, but her characters usually experience joy or sorrow privately. I liked that exterior/interior touch. I also admired Strout's willingness to confront ugly things: illness, sexual predators, unhappiness… though I have issues with how she resolves such things. Each chapter is semi-discrete, which makes the book a hybrid between a novel and a short story collection. As in (too) many such efforts, the individual tales range from deeply poignant to "Who cares?" For me, there were too many of the latter.

I also find Strout's work increasingly sentimental and sneakily preachy. I've no objection to interjecting Christian themes into literature, but I am leery of using them as magical thinking—something often experienced by the characters in this book. I get the notion that faith perhaps plays a bigger role in the Midwest than in other regions of the country, but I also suspect we are hearing Strout's views imposed upon her characters in ways that are inconsistent and too convenient. Her opening story, "The Sign," deals with an elderly man whose farm goes up in smoke. Sorry, but I simply find it hard to believe that his first thought was of God's grace as he watches his house disappear beneath the flames. I have no doubt that individuals come to see loss as a blessing, but it's hard for me to get past my impression that this scene is an implausible contrivance and an exercise in overwriting. Overall, I enjoyed about a third of the book, but found the rest either saccharine or sententious.

I am open to the possibility that mine is a too-male interpretation. I invite comment from other readers and am willing to take my lumps. My critics might be right, but either way, I think I'm done with Elizabeth Strout—unless she has another Olive in her writing bowl.

Rob Weir  

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