"In cooking, as in all the arts, simplicity is a sign of perfection." - Curnonsky

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Book Review: "Abide with Me" by Elizabeth Strout

Elizabeth Strout pulls off a difficult maneuver in Abide with Me, which excavates the emotional lives of a Protestant congregation in rural Maine, a place where people pride themselves on keeping emotions buttoned down and zippered up.

The year is 1959. Tyler Caskey, a minister in West Annett, Maine has recently lost his wife to cancer. He's trying to get past his grief, dress and feed his two little girls, and tend to the needs of his congregation, but his efforts are getting as ragged as the cuffs of his dress shirts. The book starts slowly, and it's hard at first to tell one member of Tyler's congregation from another. About a third of the way in, a few faces start to separate out from the crowd: the church deacon Charlie Austin, who hates his day-to-day life and escapes it by visiting a naughty lady down in Boston; Tyler's housekeeper Connie Hatch, who has a secret that's growing in her like a tumor; Rhonda Skillings, a school guidance counselor besotted with Freud's swirling sexual underworld.

Tyler keeps turning over memories of his wife Lauren. She taught him about love, but this girl from a well-to-do Boston family wasn't really cut out to be a small-town minister's wife. The congregation, smitten with Tyler, never warmed up to Lauren. As Tyler feels his faith slipping away, his zeal for his calling starts to diminish. The congregation senses his withdrawal, and resents it. His daughter Katherine is acting out all over, and Tyler's not prepared to deal with it. Connie Hatch finally reveals her secret, which precipitates several kinds of crisis. Tyler and his congregation have to decide if they can continue forward together.

This is a book that's easy to respect: the folks of West Annett are finely rendered, their plights feel real, and the resolution is unexpected and satisfying. But it's hard to warm up to these characters. The concerns of the congregation seem selfish and small-minded. For instance, it's not clear why so many congregants, including her kindergarten teacher and Sunday school teacher, have so little compassion for Tyler's daughter Katherine, a five year old who just lost her mother. Tyler's own mother comes across as a cold-blooded bitch. Tyler himself lacks that core of will you'd expect in a charismatic minister. Admittedly I'm seeing him during a bad time, but he's so passive that I, like his congregation, started to lose patience with him.

In the end, all wounds are healed or healing. Her fictional world is alive and credible. But it's a bit too Hallmark-like in the end. All the loose ends are resolved too hopefully. And, although the novel is absorbing, I wanted something more dramatic to occur than ever does.

No comments: