If you follow my reading log and assorted reviews that get posted, you'll know that I love connected narratives. Sometimes they are classified as short stories and sometimes as novels, sometimes they don't have any classification of all. I've started calling them stor-vels.
One writer whose work has sailed under the radar that has written several of these sorts of books is Alice Mattison. The first that comes to mind is Men Giving Money, Women Yelling, which takes place in and around New Haven, and sort of dance around this character Denny. I read this book 20 years ago and still think about it--how many books can you say that about?
The other is called In Case We're Separated, and it's about several generations of a Jewish family. When I realized that the stories were in the form of a sestina, with repeated objects in the stories taking the place of words in a poem, I was bowled over. As one of my friends said to me recently, "There's nothing like a book that's cleverly constructed."
One of my customers had Mattison at a student at his MFA program and spoke as well of her as a teacher as I do of her as a writer.
Another author whose work has a bit of a higher profile is Joan Silber. I've read two of her collections and both of them, Ideas of Heaven and Fools had those connections that make reading a short story collection extra special. In one of them (and remember, I'm not a critic but a bookseller, so I am not going back and reading all these books), I recall a character reading a story, with the next story being about the one the character was reading. Ideas of Heaven also jumped around in time - no limitations and yet completely structurally contained.
Sometimes these stories come together so fully that the work does wind up being a novel, and that's true with two of my favorite works of Boswell era, which I call anything since 2009. Simon Van Booy's The Illusion of Separateness really did start out as stories, but the throughline is so tightly wound that it's' hard to separate out the pieces. At its center are two soldier who meet on the battlefield during World War II, an American and a German, and what happens (or doesn't) reverberates out through the next century. And of course we start at the end, not the beginning.
Another book that's been on my mind of late is Frederick Reiken's Day for Night. I was happy to note that Reiken's first two novels, which I also read, The Lost Legends of New Jersey and The Odd Sea, or still selling well enough to outsell his later book, but it disturbs me that more folks haven't discovered his most recent 1999 novel. I went to Mr. Reiken's website and found a link to the blog post I wrote in 2010 and I link to it again now.
Reiken's story incorporates many things I love about books, the idea that we're all connected (the characters at the heart of the story are a Holocaust survivor doctor and a fugitive radical), how blurry the line can be between good and evil, and how philosophical arguments can play out in so many ways, from playing Dungeons and Dragons to discussing 1984. It's the 1984 piece that got me thinking about the book again, because it has become a huge bestseller again this year in the first year of the Trump presidency. It's back on my rec shelf and my first sale was to someone who'd fallen in love with All My Puny Sorrows, a book that doesn't belong in this post, but nonetheless it seemed to me that someone who liked Toews book would also like Reiken's.
So why am I writing about this? It's because I just recently finished Elizabeth Strout's Anything Is Possible, and while I was reading this terrific novel, or story collection, or whatever it is, all these wonderful feelings I've had when reading these other stor-vels came rushing back to me.
The truth is that it's a companion to My Name Is Lucy Barton, which came out last year. As you may know, that's the story of a writer recalling an incident in 1980s when she was hospitalized for several weeks, and her husband invited her estranged mother from Illinois to visit over several days. Barton had not visited the family in a long time, and slowly we understand exactly what the family dynamic was that led to this. The novel is much about being a writer, and how Barton pushed through her past, but her mom is a larger than life character, who shares stories of the folks from their past and what they are up to.
So Anything Is Possible winds up being about all the different people in Barton's life, and while you'd think it would not work to read the books out of order, it is my contention that it might work better. I love the idea of Barton being peripherally connected to the characters, many of whom grew up in abject poverty, some of whome made it and some of whom didn't. Then there are the folks who were better off, some of whose fortunes' declined. There are stories that are poignant and hopeful and others that are horrifying, but you get so connected to some of the side characters that for me, when the Dottie story finally arrived, I said a gleeful "Eek."
Structurally I am told this new work bears work to Olive Kitteridge, her 2008 work that was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. But I wouldn't know because I didn't read it! As I have said before, sometimes a book gets to the point where it doesn't need me anymore and while I still have a curiosity because I feel I should read a book that's so big that it's in part of general conversation, for a number of years, I would shy away from such books for that very reason, too popular!
So Anything Is Possible not a sequel to My Name Is Lucy Barton, but a companion, and honestly, it could have worked for me had there not been a My Name is Lucy Barton at all. But the truth is that there is, so I rushed down to Friend of Boswell Fawn at the Tippecanoe Library (it seemed appropriate to borrow this as Elizabeth Strout is the featured speaker at the Friends of the Milwaukee Public Library Literary Luncheon) and gobbled it up. No surprise there--it was recommended to me by both Ann Patchett and Elinor Lipman.
To me, this stor-vel is so much about class. I love this moment when the Nicely sisters are talking and neither can understand the other's life. I love the bond that connects Lucy with Abel Blaine. I love being on one side of the bed and breakfast (the visitor) and on the other side (the innkeeper) in another. I love that we know secrets about characters that we still know when they go back to being peripheral. I wonder if the book was written in this order, and whether there are other stories about the Amgash folk that didn't make it in. Maybe you'll share this curiosity. If so, your questions might be answered on May 5, at the Friends of the Milwaukee Public Library Literary Luncheon.
Anything Is Possible goes on sale April 25. The Friends of the Milwaukee Public Library Literary Luncheon is Friday, May 5. Tickets are $70, $60 for Friends members. Purchase your ticket here.