Elizabeth Strout is a master of silences and small-town resignation. Penelope Lively has a wry ability to skewer – and the generosity to pull back before things get vicious.
Both award-winning writers both offer new short-story collections with plenty of insight into people whose lives haven’t turned out the way they hoped. The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories, by the Booker Prize-winning Lively, and Anything Is Possible, by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Strout bring perspective to our current moment but blessedly, no politics.
Lively’s characters hail primarily from the British middle class and its state of perpetual uncertainty; Strout’s from the kind of rural left-behind town newly prominent in thought since the November election. (Each collection also, coincidentally, sets one story in Italy.) Both writers offer an unusual combination of a generous heart and an unflinching gaze, a mix of perspicacity and grace both uncommon and needed.
Strout’s last novel, “My Name Is Lucy Barton,” was about a woman who fled poverty in Amgash, Ill., to become a successful writer in New York. “Anything Is Possible,” is a series of linked stories similar in format to Strout's Pulitzer-winning novel, “Olive Kitteridge.”
The stories follow the school janitor, a kind man who used to be a dairy farmer before his farm and home burned down one night; the school guidance counselor, who used to be known as one of the “Pretty Nicely Girls”; her sister, who married richly and creepily; Charlie McCauley, a Vietnam Vet who suffered from PTSD; and Lucy’s brother Pete, who stayed in the tiny, run-down home Lucy fled all those years ago. “I didn’t know them, since I was in school in Hanston, but they were the kids that people would say, Oh, cooties!, and run away from,” Patty Nicely tells her husband. In “Sister,” readers get more understanding of what went on behind the closed blinds in the Barton home.
It’s not necessary to have read “Lucy Barton” to follow the residents of Amgash, Ill. – although for those who have, “Anything Is Possible” offers additional news of characters like Marilyn McCauley, Charlie’s wife, and Mississippi Mary, who nursed her cheating husband through cancer and then, once he was well, ran off to Italy with a man 20 years her junior. Lucy Barton puts in an appearance with her first trip home to Amgash to see her siblings.
Lively, author of 25 previous books, has written everything from award-winning novels and children’s books to memoirs, essays, and books on gardening. Her delightfully titled, “The Purple Swamp Hen and Other Stories,” travels from a bird living in a garden in Pompei to a grocery-shopping trip with an elderly former spy and her young home-care aide. (The title story is markedly different in tone from the rest of the collection.)
“You know what happened, but you don’t always see what happened. Interesting difference,” one character notes. Lively plays with that gap in perspective in various stories throughout the collection.
A little girl makes an unusual friend on a family’s uncomfortable visit to the new weekend home of a former classmate. In “The Bridge,” a woman who built a hard-won life apart from her actor husband faces the prospect of taking him back in now that parts have dried up. Behind his long absences is a tragedy that, for the actor but not his wife, is tinged with malevolence. He loves stories; she is impatient with fiction as fabrications and lies. But which one remembers that long-ago day correctly? “How can something have happened twice over?” his wife thinks. “One way for him, another for me?”
“Oh well – I’ll cope. I’m a coper,” she tells herself.
Many of the characters in both collections are copers – dealing with death, abuse, and fizzled dreams.
In “Anything Is Possible,” permission to grieve is often received as a moment of grace. “You’re a Midwestern girl, so you say things are fine. But they may not always be fine,” a character tells Patty, now a widow. “You sure don’t have to tell what’s not fine … and I’m sure not going to ask. I’m just here to say that sometimes … that sometimes things aren’t so fine, no siree bob. They aren’t always fine.”
Janitor Tommy Guptill often thinks, without bitterness, about the night that turned his children from the kids who hosted field trips and picnics at their beautiful farm, to the kids who watched their dad push a broom and clean up sick in the school hallways. “Well. They had all lived through it.”
Sometimes, that is benediction enough.