Shari Thurer, ScD, Member of BPSI’s Library Committee. Her remarks below originally appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of the Hann Sachs Library Newsletter, which can be read here.
Review of Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout, Random House, 2017, 272 pp.
In Elizabeth’s Strout’s Anything Is Possible, a farmer watches his barns burn down in a fire possibly set by the town’s public masturbator, whom he exonerates. The farmer’s decency is set against the petty nastiness and ugly sexual secrets of other residents of Amgash, Illinois, many of whose primary source of entertainment seems to be shabby gossip. These Amgash folks are not the inhabitants of Little House on the Prairie. True, there are moments of grace and kindness among them, but those moments alternate with shared schadenfreude. Strout paints an interlocking chain of nine portraits of individuals, warts and all, that combine to create a realistic panorama of life in a depressed farming town. Many of these characters have appeared in other Strout novels, but here take their turn in the spotlight.
While most of her characters lead thwarted lives of quiet desperation, they do not think of leaving Amgash. In fact, they disparage those who do get away, like Lucy Barton, the subject of another Strout novel. Barton, here a best-selling author, hails from extreme poverty, including a background of dumpster-diving. She returns to Amgash briefly, after seventeen years, to visit her brother and sister, and proceeds to have a panic attack. Her father was the masturbator.
Strout is an omniscient narrator who eavesdrops on her characters’ thoughts and feelings. The psychoanalytic reader will admire her insights, even as her characters themselves are highly defended. Fatty Patty observes her mother’s infidelity and thereafter cannot have sex. Pete, Lucy’s brother, son of the sexually inappropriate father, withdraws into children’s books. All these dynamics are psychoanalytically true. We see them in our patients, maybe in ourselves. Strout’s writing is spare and accessible; the dramatic turns are understated. I had a hard time leaving Amgash, claustrophobic as it is, but I found myself mesmerized by the dynamics of a place where, like the Boston Cheers bar, “everybody knows your name,” but no one tells the truth.
Shari Thurer, ScD,is a member of BPSI’s Library Committee, a psychologist in Boston, former professor at Boston University, and author of a number of notable books and articles.
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