"People are so interesting." Elizabeth Strout/ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Monday evening I headed to the Free Library of Philadelphia to join friends for an evening celebrating Elizabeth Strout. I'd seen Miss Strout, years before, in a small classroom at Swarthmore College, but that was before her great fame, before the HBO adaptation of Olive Kitteridge, before last week's New Yorker profile. I'd just had a rather unfortunate encounter with another famous writer the week before, and I was hoping, how I was hoping, that great fame had not dented Strout's original charm.

That fame had not made her immune to the questions her readers wish to ask.

Good news for all of us: It has not. In conversation with the always-delightful Laura Kovacs, Strout was smart, precise, concise. "Right," she'd say, touching her glasses, and that would say it all. Then she'd say a little more, and we were with her. The entire, sold-out audience was.

More than once, Strout commented on how interesting people are, and I could imagine her on subways, in restaurants, over coffee, listening for the odd and beautiful articulations of nearby strangers falling in and out of love, hope, despair. What we love about Strout, and what is so gorgeously apparent in her newest linked fiction collection, Anything is Possible, is her ability to marinate even the crustiest characters with moments of moving reverie and meaningful hesitations. Maybe they aren't always the most pleasant, honest, well-meaning people, but they come from hard places and they still seek the dazzle of sun-struck snow or maternal affection or a place where they might confess.

They are still so very human, so very interesting, and when they hurt, when they act hurt, we cannot blame them. We're glad to find them again, set off in different light, at a different angle, a few stories later.

It is in the seemingly smallest of exchanges that so much devastating beauty happens. Here, in "Mississippi Mary," a mother and daughter reconnect in a small Italian town. They've not seen each other for four years. The daughter, trying to be hip, has arrived in a too-tight pair of jeans. They have been thinking toward each other, these characters, but also speaking past each other. They have spent time in the ocean, the mother in her yellow two-piece suit, the daughter in her conservative one-piece. Then there is this moment. They are discussing those jeans.

And then Angelina—oh bless her soul—began to really laugh. "Well, I don't like them. I feel like a jerk in them. But I bought them special, so you'd think I was, you know, sophisticated or something." Angelina added, "In my one-piece bathing suit!" Both of them laughed until they had tears in their eyes, and even then they kept on laughing. But Mary thought: Not one thing lasts forever; still may Angelina have this moment for the rest of her life.
To try to define, in academic fashion, just why this hits so hard would be impossible. But we don't need to dissect it. We just need to embrace, and I can't think of a reader out there who would not embrace this book.

During the open question period, a fan asked Strout something about the other writers to whom Strout had been compared. Strout wavered, then returned to the suggested notion of Alice Munro, a comparison she liked a lot.

I'd like to share two others: Louise Erdrich, in her early books. Kent Haruf in all of his.

Small moments. Big heart. Wise writing that gets out of its own way.

That's what Strout delivers.


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