Anything Is Possible Summary & Study Guide

Elizabeth Strout
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Anything Is Possible Summary & Study Guide Description

Anything Is Possible Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Quotes and a Free Quiz on Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout.

The following version of this book was used to create this study guide: Strout, Elizabeth. Anything Is Possible. Random House, 2017.

The novel is divided into nine separate chapters, each of which can be read as a separate short story. Told in the third-person, limited omniscient past tense narration, each chapter focuses on one or two main characters, and each show how the past intrudes into the lives of these characters as their present-day lives unfold.

In “The Sign,” the narration follows a day in the life of Tommy Guptill, who owned a dairy farm years before. The farm burned to the ground almost a lifetime before the novel opens, but it still occupied an important part of Tommy's identity and life. During the course of the chapter, Tommy went to town to purchase a birthday gift for his wife. As a janitor in the nearby town, he had come to know many of the people he met throughout his day as children, including the shop owner where he purchased the scarf and Lucy Barton, whose book was featured in the town bookstore. On the way back home, Tommy checked in on Pete Barton, Lucy's brother. Pete accused Tommy of torturing him, because Pete believed that Tommy knew his father was the one to start the fire at the dairy farm. Tommy had known no such thing, and tried to comfort Pete, who he knew to have a hard life and a childhood defined by his family's poverty. Before Tommy left, he drove Pete to the end of the drive, where Pete began violently dismantling the sign that advertised the Barton's long-since closed tailoring business. The violence with which Pete hit the sign let Tommy realize that it had been the mother, not only the father, who had been terrible to the Barton children. To make Pete feel better, Tommy told the man a secret; he had always believed that the burning of the farm was a sign from God. Having told Tommy, however, Pete felt deflated, and doubt now replaced the calm he had once felt about the event.

“Windmills” follows a series of days in the life of Patty Nicely, a woman who lived in the same town that Tommy Guptill visited on his errands. Her husband, Sebastian, had died some years before, and Patty worked as a guidance counselor at the local school. On the day, the story narrates, Patty had an appointment with a new student, Lila Lane, who turned out to be Lucy Barton's niece. Lila said awful things to Patty, accusing her of being a virgin despite having a husband and calling her fat. Patty called the girl filth and dismissed her, and then called her sister, Linda, who could not be bothered to listen to Patty's grief, much less have any sympathy. Later, Patty went to the bookstore and purchased Lucy Barton's memoir. She ran into Charlie Macauley, an older man that she felt herself in love with. The meeting with Charlie made her remember meeting her husband, Sebastian, and his confession that he had been abused and could never have sex. Patty herself was fine with this arrangement, because witnessing her mother having sex with the high school Spanish teacher had made Patty associate any sexual pleasure with an intense feeling of shame. Patty read Lucy's memoir that night, and reading it made Patty feel as though she had been seen. When Patty had lunch the next day with Angelina Mumford, her friend from work whose mother had also abandoned her family, Patty tried to tell her about the memoir, but Angelina only wanted to talk about herself. Later, she met Charlie again, this time at the local post office, and the two sat in companionable silence.

The next chapter, “Cracked,” takes up the story of Patty's sister, Linda Peterson-Cornell, who had married a wealthy man and now lived outside Chicago in a renovated house filled with expensive art. This chapter pivots between the perspective of Linda and Yvonne, the photographer that the Peterson-Cornells were hosting as part of the local photography festival. Yvonne, the photographer, was put off by the lack of doors and privacy in the guest room, but she did not realize that Linda's husband Jay was actually videotaping and watching her through his computer screen. The narrative moves between Linda's wish that her husband would just disappear and Yvonne's experiences with the Peterson-Cornells and the artists at the festival. Linda joined in watching Yvonne with her husband, and on their last evening, she felt complicit in helping her husband attempt to seduce Yvonne. The reader learns that her husband's actions have driven away the couple's two children, but even that is not enough to make Linda leave him, because she has a bone-deep fear of ending up alone and impoverished as her mother had, once her mother left their father. In the end, Jay was accused of attempting to rape Yvonne, but Linda stood by him, until the charges--and Yvonne--went away.

In “The Hit-Thumb Theory,” Charlie Macauley met with a prostitute at a run-down motel outside of Peoria while his wife thought he was at a therapy session for veterans with PTSD. Throughout the chapter, Charlie implied that he had done something in the war or in his past to make his entire soul dirty, and that he deserved whatever pain came to him. He was unhappy in his marriage, as his wife Marilyn had high levels of anxiety. Meeting the prostitute, whose name is Tracy, had given him a sense of space and hope, but when he felt as though he had fallen in love with her--and therefore was no longer in control--he decided to break it off. At their last meeting, Tracy, asked Charlie for $10,000 to help her son. At first, he refused, but then he drove with her to a local bank and gave her the money, which actually belonged to his wife. He threatened to kill Tracy himself if she ever contacted him again. Then he drove to a local B&B, where he waited for the pain to come, realizing suddenly that not feeling any pain would be worse.

In “Mississippi Mary,” Angelina from "Windmills" and her mother, Mary Mumford, who left her marriage after 51 years to move to Italy and marry a somewhat younger man named Paolo, are the narrators. Angelia was Mary's favorite of the five girls she had, and her mothering made Angelina dependent upon Mary. Angelina was the only one of her daughters who had not come to visit Mary in Italy, and Mary realized that Angelina would most likely never forgive her for leaving. Angelina herself cannot understand her mother's actions. Despite knowing that her father was a difficult man and that he had cheated on Mary, Angelina believed that her mother should have stayed and dealt with it. Angelina's own husband had left her because he had accused her of being too in love with Mary, her mother, and not in love with him. Over the course of the chapter, Angelina came to see her mother's kindness and grace toward others, and there is the indication that perhaps she would be able to forgive Mary after all.

The next chapter, “Sisters,” focuses on Pete from "The Sign." His sister Lucy Barton has said that she would come for the first visit back to Amgash since she left as a teenager. Pete attempted to prepare for her visit by cleaning up the house and himself, but it was clear that the filth that had accumulated over his years of not doing anything about it could not be so easily wiped away. When Lucy arrived, she was kind and genuinely happy to see her brother. At first the two thought their sister, Vicky, would not come, but then Vicky arrived unannounced and unhappy about Lucy's appearance after so many years of absence. The three siblings talk about how horrible their parents had been and how abusive their childhood was, but Lucy did not want to think of things as so bad. When Vicky insisted that they were exactly that bad, Lucy had a panic attack that forced her to flee. Her siblings were to drive Lucy to Chicago, but an hour outside of the city, she stopped them and continued on alone, with barely a goodbye. Vicky realized that Lucy was just as damaged by their childhood as she had been, and Pete found comfort in Vicky's presence and sturdiness.

“Dottie's Bed and Breakfast,” the next chapter, takes place in the B&B that Charlie visited in "The Hit-Thumb Theory." Dottie is Lucy Barton's second cousin. Having also grown up in nearly unspeakable poverty, Dottie had managed to pull herself out of Amgash. She had a nasty divorce and had taken to running a B&B. When the chapter opens, Dr. and Mrs. Small from the East had arrived, and Dottie takes their measure immediately. However, Mrs. Small, who Dottie had assumed to be worn down from being married to such a man, surprised Dottie. Shelly Small told Dottie a story about an actress named Annie Appleby that a friend of theirs had dated once, but Dottie realized that Shelly was really talking about herself and that Shelly's only real problem was that life hadn't turned out as well as Shelly had once expected. When Shelly pretended not to notice Dottie the next day, Dottie told her husband that she ran an inn and was not a prostitute, because she felt that Shelly had used her to unburden herself without giving her the human courtesy of connecting with Dottie as a person. Dottie then remembered Charlie, and knew that she felt a connection there with him, even in his suffering.

“Snow-Blind” occurs before most of the other events in the novel, as it details the childhood of Annie Appleby in Maine. Annie was a talkative and creative child who loved to go out into the woods, but whose childhood was defined by the shame that her father forced on everyone. Once she left to pursue acting, she rarely returned because every time she tried to come home, her father would shame her and the gifts she brought for the family. When her father was old and demented enough to be placed in a nursing home, Annie returned to her family's farm to discover that her father had been having an affair with another man through most of her childhood.

In “Gift,” Dottie's brother, Abel Blaine, who married well and ran a air-conditioning business in Chicago, is the focus. When the chapter opens, he was running late and showed up just in time to go with his wife, daughter, and grandchildren to their yearly viewing of A Christmas Carol. During the show he could barely concentrate, thinking instead about any number of things, including whether his daughter, Zoe, was happy. Later, they realize that his granddaughter had left her toy horse at the theater, and Abel volunteered to retrieve it. When he arrived at the theater, he found the toy hanging from a noose and the man who played Scrooge waiting for him. The man, Linck, was clearly unstable and tried to force Abel to sit. As Abel tried to talk his way out of the confrontation, he began to become more honest, and the two men connected in a way that neither had expected. However, from the stress and lack of eating, Abel began to have another heart attack. Linck called for an ambulance and as Abel hung between life and death, he marveled at the gift of finding a friend in the most unexpected of circumstances.

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