Tuesday, May 9, 2017

There is such tsuris

Yesterday the bad news was that despite wearing a decent suit I had neglected to put on my belt before I left home. When I got out of the car I realized I was belt-less.  The worse news was that my pants had no trouble remaining up--reflecting the recent expansion of my girth.

This should be the most terrible thing that happens to me--an increase in circumference.

My mother's refrain when she heard stories of woe from and about others was, "There is such tsuris in the world."  She would shake her head and say again, "Such tsuris."

Tsuris is a Yiddish word that means, roughly, heartache or sadness. It is the opposite of nachas which means joy.  The birth of a grandchild brings the grandparent nachas.  (If the grandchild grows up to be a Republican there is tsuris).

Anything is Possible is a sequel to Elizabeth Strout's novel, My Name is Lucy Barton. Strout is the author of the brilliant Olive Kitteridge.  Anything is Possible is not as good as that novel, but not many books are.  It is also not as good as Lucy Barton.  That said, it is still a good read.

The novel is essentially a collection of stories about people who are somehow connected to Lucy Barton. In the earlier novel Lucy is in a New York hospital after some complications from an appendectomy.  Her mother from the midwest comes to visit her. During her visits and flashbacks to childhood, we learn how poor the Barton family had been and how, in addition to the actual hunger, the family was emotionally malnourished.

In Anything is Possible the reader is taken to the area where Lucy grew up.  We meet her brother, sister, cousins--who had been even poorer, some classmates, the janitor from her high school and assorted others.   The characters in these stories have tsuris.  They have, in fact, "gehoketh" tsuris, which means real bad tsuris. (Literally "chopped up" tsuris).

The brother and sister have holes in their hearts from the upbringing.  A classmate, now a guidance counselor and widow, is hauling around the memory of coming home one day from school as a child and discovering her mother "in flagrante delicto" with one of her teachers.   A man who had been relatively affluent loses his livelihood in a fire and becomes the janitor in the public schools. We learn of an actress whose childhood was affected by her mother and father's unnatural marriage, and yet another woman who has made peace with a marriage to a man who rents out rooms to women where cameras are installed so that he can stare at these renters as they use the toilet and shower.   A Vietnam vet has an affair which, if the war did not do this already, all but destroys him.  The cousins can recall a childhood where they frequented dumpsters in order to find something to eat.

Lots of tsuris.   Lucy has gotten out. She is a successful writer in New York.  When she returns to visit with her siblings we see clearly that she is still scarred but apparently has been able to function. The janitor also is living happily despite the financial disaster.  The cousins have carved out a piece of this life that has allowed them a degree of happiness.

The point of the novel is in the title.  Anything is Possible.  Despite tsuris. Even gehoketh tsuris.

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