Elizabeth Strout is an internationally and critically acclaimed bestselling author of My Name is Lucy Barton. Lucy Barton, as a stock character, is also an author who writes mostly about farm life in Angash, Illinois. How her family were so desperately poor they ate scraps out of dump trucks and were shunned. The first chance she got to get away she took it. Later she became a successful writer in New York. The maxim ‘write what you know’ seems to apply here. This is the second of Strout’s books I’ve read and I can see how it is easy to conflate the fictional Lucy Barton with the author Elizabeth Strout. For her anything must seem possible.
Here we are back in Illinois, in the patchwork of different stories, of people from the same place, Amgash. Strout is great at handling time, how it doesn’t really go away, but it held in collective consciousness and in the bodies of her characters.
The wisdom of folly is the theme.
In ‘Gift’, for example, Abel Blake who’d become rich after he married the boss’s daughter, but had once been very poor. A cousin of Lucy Barton, he’d once queued so the author could sign her name on her latest book. He’d showed her how to eat out of dumpsters. It was a look-at-us now moment. Both successful. He loves his kids, loves his grandkids, but is indifferent to his wife. After a theatre trip his granddaughter had left behind Snowy, a soft toy and companion. He returns to get it and is lucky enough that the theatre is still open. The star performer has become unhinged and Blake realises too late he’s caught and he’s old and he can’t run away. He’s faced to confront the ‘Gift’, the gift of his successful life after Amgash and the compassion and empathy rural poverty had given him. He concludes with his dying breath, ‘Anything is Possible’.
The structure of most stories follow the simple pattern of the set-up, the knockdown, the dust yourself down and get up again—with life lesson learned.
Whisper it, the writing stinks. Her stories have lots of dialogue and read like screenplays. In the story ‘The Hit-Thumb Theory’, for example, the set-up is Charlie is cheating on his wife. The prostitute he’s meeting asks him for cash, $10 000. He refuses.
Then her green eyes became like dark nostrils that flared that is the image that came to him as he watched her; her eyes moving like the nostrils of a horse, pulled up, pulled back. “My son’s going to be dead if I don’t come up with the money.” No tears now. Her breath came in little bursts.
When editing another person’s work it’s best to offer constructive criticism. Here is mine.
Then her green eyes became like dark nostrils that flared that is the image that came to him as he watched her; her eyes moving like the nostrils of a horse, pulled up, pulled back. “My son’s going to be dead if I don’t come up with the money.”
No tears now. Her breath came in little bursts.
I’d suggest to Strout that eyes that flare are clichéd. She might like to think of something else. That I’d enjoyed her book. And apart from the writing it was great. If she self-publishes I’ll certainly give her a good review. Perhaps we could go on a blog-tour together. That seems quite fashionable. Anything is Possible.