Abide with Me

I mentioned the other day that I listened to Elizabeth Strout’s novel Abide with Me, and that book has convinced me that I should probably take a look at her other books as well. It’s a quiet, thoughtful character study, and I liked its insights into small-town life and what it’s like to try to be a spiritual leader when one’s life is falling apart.

The novel is set in a small town in Maine in the late 1950s, and the main character is the pastor of the Congregational church, Tyler Caskey, who just a year ago lost his wife and is now trying to cope with his grief and take care of his two young daughters. In a long flashback, Strout tells the story of how Tyler met his wife, Lauren, a woman from a much wealthier, more stylish family, and how the two of them settled into their new life in town. The congregation fell in love with Tyler, but could never quite accept Lauren, with her monied, Massachusetts background, her suspect love of fashion, and her complete disinterest in leading prayer groups. Tyler and Lauren were deeply in love, but it was a young, sudden, and inexperienced kind of love, and it quickly becomes clear that the two of them are headed into trouble, until one day Lauren gets sick and soon she is gone.

So Tyler is left on his own to grieve and to figure out how to lead an entirely new kind of life. And things quickly begin to fall apart. His daughter Katherine has failed to make friends at school and mutters things like “I hate God” in church. His housekeeper disappears under suspicious circumstances. He has trouble writing sermons. His mother pesters him to find a new wife. His congregation has begun to distrust him. And Tyler doesn’t know how to respond to any of this.

The character of Tyler is the triumph of this book; he is wise, kind, earnest, slow but with charisma, and an excellent deliverer of sermons. He believes with all his heart in everything he preaches and tries as best as he can to be a good person and to do his job well. He’s also naive and afraid of conflict, and it’s these qualities that get him into trouble. When his congregation starts to turn against him, he can’t understand why, and he doesn’t grasp that he needs to act quickly to change their minds. He believes that being a good person and doing his best is enough. It’s heartbreaking that these beliefs just aren’t true, and it seems unfair that people like Tyler have to learn lessons in the really painful way he does.

The book’s other triumph is its portrayal of small-town life, particularly small-town life in rural Maine in the 1950s. Tyler’s wife Lauren is a foolish character in a lot of ways, but surely everyone would sympathize with her horror at the boredom and isolation she experiences. Her mother-in-law gives her a book on how to be a pastor’s wife, and when she playfully begins to read it out loud to Tyler, she soon stops, bewildered by the advice she gets. Many of the other women in town are just as bored and unhappy as she is, and when one woman tells another to “just make the beds, then you’ll feel better,” it’s hardly encouraging. The picture of small-town life and 1950s pre-feminist frustration Strout creates is a familiar one, but she treats the subject with subtlety and acuteness and it never feels stereotyped.

So now I’m eager to read more of Strout’s books. Olive Kitteridge would be a logical next place to go, as it won the Pulitzer, and there is also Amy and Isabelle. It’s fun to find another author whose work I’d like to follow.

13 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

13 responses to “Abide with Me

  1. I’m becoming more and more intrigued by Strout the more I hear of her. It seems like she works in a mode that I would really love – your description here reminds me a bit of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, which is one of my top novels of all time. I should give her a try!

  2. Ann

    Strout was a name unknown to me until ‘Olive Kitteridge’ won the Pullitzer. I loved that book so much! But, it was extremely difficult to get old of through the UK library system, so I don’t hold out much hope for finding ‘Abide With Me’. Nevertheless, I’m off now to try.

  3. How interesting.I had trouble with Olive Kitteridge – only because of the darkness of the material, it was beautifully written.There’s something about the way that Stout puts her finger on what really hurts in relationships and sort of holds it there. I’m keen to try another of her novels because I did think she was a very good writer.

  4. Strout sounds like a fascinating author. I’ve seen so many interesting reviews about Olive Kitteridge that it is nice to see something on another of her books. I think I will have to be sure to keep her on my radar and try to read her sometime.

  5. I do recommend Amy & Isabelle – a great mother/daughter relationship book. I have Abide with Me & Olive K. on my shelf. I must get to them soon. Both sound excellent!

  6. I really loved Olive Kitteridge, so I can definitely recommend it. I read Amy and Isabelle when it first came out, and really liked it, too, but I think Olive struck a deeper chord with me. I’m going straight out and finding a copy of Abide With Me. Great review–thanks!

  7. I hadn’t heard of Strout, but the 1950s small town setting, and the characters, sound like something I would really love.

  8. Emily — yes, it’s similar to Gilead in its quietness and thoughtfulness and its wisdom about the religious life. I think you’d like it! I adored Gilead too.

    Ann — I’m so glad to hear you liked Olive Kitteridge so much. It makes me even more eager to get to it. I’m sorry Strout’s books are so difficult to find. That’s just not right, I think!

    Litlove — I see what you mean and something similar goes on in Abide with Me — what happens to the main character is really difficult to take. But she does write beautifully, doesn’t she?

    Stefanie — I’ve seen a lot of reviews of OK too and so was glad to learn a little more about the author, even if I haven’t gotten to her most famous one yet. And I’m happy to help fill in the picture on her work a bit!

    Iliana — I’m very glad to know that A&I is good as well. Excellent! She’s worth reading in her entirety, I think.

    Gentle Reader — thank you! I really hope you like Abide with Me, and I’m very pleased to hear you liked the other two so much.

    Debby — I think you might like this one. It’s sad, but not overwhelmingly so and it’s also hopeful and not bleak and hopeless at all.

  9. Sounds like an itneresting book, Dorothy. I haven’t read any of Strout’s work. From what you’ve written here in your review, would she be similar to Richard Yates? Also, small town 1950’s makes me associate with Edward Hopper’s paintings. Thanks for the detailed review.

  10. You write about this book beautifully, Dorothy. I want to pick this up and read it now. I do have Amy and Isabelle on hand, which I’ve owned for years. I can see I will need to dig it out and see if it is as good and will be on the look out for this one as well!

  11. Pete

    I’ve just been reading about the troubled life of M Scott Peck so it seems serendipitous to read here about the troubles of Tyler. I think Lilian reviewed Olive Kitteridge too.

  12. verbivore

    I have been meaning to try Strout for ages, not sure where to start…Olive Kitteridge gets a lot of hype but this one sounds good.

  13. Arti — I’d say she’s similar to Yates in setting and time period and in the basic topics she writes about, but different in tone and general outlook. Her book feels more hopeful than I remember Revolutionary Road being. She’s capable of darkness, definitely, but it’s not a bleak book at all.

    Danielle — thank you! I’ve got her other books on my Book Mooch list now and will keep an eye out for cheap copies other places. She really is a great find!

    Pete — I don’t know anything about Peck’s life, so it’s interesting to find out it was troubled. A source of his wisdom perhaps?

    Verbivore — I’d really love to know what you think of her! This one was good, although if my library had had OK on audio, I probably would have picked that one up instead.

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