published in the Raleigh News and Observer OCTOBER 30, 2017
Elizabeth Strout follows her 2016 “My Name is Lucy Barton” with this year’s “Anything is Possible,” again narrated by Kimberly Farr. (Both book and audio from Random House).
The first book, a narrative about the title character, was spare. The heroine, spending nine long weeks in a hospital, is haunted by memory fragments. She may have physically escaped her birthplace of Amgash, Illinois, but certainly not emotionally. In the audio, Farr matched the author’s gift for paucity, expressing small moments so vividly, one intuited larger absolutes and psychological complexity. Farr’s reading gave emotional shape and texture and that seemed satisfying … until I heard “Anything is Possible.”
In this novel, Strout returns to her successful form of linked short stories. These tales center on the inhabitants of the fictional Amgash. After a few stories, I realized the literary longing left by the first book as Farr took me deep into the hearts of many characters. Each provides a perspective of Lucy’s past, and I understood more fully who she was and why she had difficulty resolving the wounds of her childhood.
The stories open with Tommy who became a school janitor when his farm burned down. Farr adopts an elderly voice enhancing the wisdom, warmth and tenderness that makes his empathy believable. Tommy remembers nurturing a spirited young Lucy and condemning an inappropriate action her father took. Decades later, Tommy comforts her aging brother, gently assuaging the guilt the “boy-man” has carried for years.
The next story focuses on Patty, one of the “pretty Nicely girls” Lucy once envied. Now she’s “Fatty Patty,” the high school guidance counselor. When a student is ugly, Farr captures Patty’s smoldering anger. She expresses Patty’s surprise and admiration at Lucy’s book publication and, after reading it, is left with a buoying hopefulness.
The many different characters reveal secrets, vulnerabilities, longing, and often, shame. Farr strikes their emotional cores so convincingly that listeners are pulled into each story. The tone bears familiarity to that of Lucy’s in the first book so timbre and truths clarify how important it was for her to escape.
Lucy appears in one story, and Farr’s expression is chilling. Farr begins by portraying an optimistic Lucy traveling back to Amgash only to become the target of her bitter sister’s ugliness and view how their childhood damaged her brother. Farr expresses Lucy’s shifts – a composed Lucy passes through shock and horror, then finally collapses under the weight of past and present traumas.
It’s no wonder Strout wanted to return to this landscape and these people. And this is an audio listeners may to hear a second time. On first listen, there is a strong impact of each character’s sensitive truths and the combined power of extreme emotions. Re-listening, one admires the intricacies of Strout’s structuring, the characters’ connections and the human qualities that become themes. A second listen allows appreciation of Farr’s nuanced portrayals and the strength of emotional strains that thread through the audio.