A radiant collection of stories linked to Strout’s previous novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton (2016, etc.), but moving beyond its first-person narration to limn small-town life from multiple perspectives.
Lucy is long gone from Amgash, Illinois, but her absence looms large; now that she’s a well-known author, the fact that her desperately poor family was despised and outcast has become an uncomfortable memory for the locals, including her damaged brother, Pete, and resentful sister, Vicky. Strout stakes out the collection’s moral terrain in its first story, “The Sign.” Tommy Guptill, who was kind to Lucy when she was a girl, still drops by the ramshackle Barton house to check on Pete even though it’s quite likely that Pete’s father was responsible for the fire that destroyed Tommy’s dairy farm and reduced him to taking a job as a school janitor. Tommy is an extraordinarily good man who took the calamitous fire as a spiritual lesson in what was truly important and has lived by it ever since. Patty Nicely, protagonist of “Windmills,” is another genuinely decent person who returns kindness for cruelty from Vicky’s angry daughter, Lila, who, in addition to viciously insulting Patty, states the jaundiced town wisdom about Lucy: “She thinks she’s better than any of us.” That isn’t so, we see in the story in which Lucy finally visits home (“Sister”), but there are plenty of mean-spirited people in Amgash who like to think so; it excuses their own various forms of uncaring. Class prejudice remains one of Strout’s enduring themes, along with the complex, fraught bonds of family across the generations, and she investigates both with tender yet tough-minded compassion for even the most repulsive characters (Patty’s nasty sister, Linda, and her predatory husband, Jay, in the collection’s creepiest story, “Cracked”). The epic scope within seemingly modest confines recalls Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winner, Olive Kitteridge (2008), and her ability to discern vulnerabilities buried beneath bad behavior is as acute as ever.
Another powerful examination of painfully human ambiguities and ambivalences—this gifted writer just keeps getting better.