Novelists, like high divers, should get extra points for degree of difficulty. Elizabeth Strout set her first novel in a dying New England mill town. She took the story of a sullen teenager and her tightly-wound mother and made something special of it. She pulls off another 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 taciturn 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 we're seeing him during a bad time, but he's so passive that the reader, like his congregation, may start to lose patience with him.
Pleasure comes from the superbly detailed setting, from the nuances of Tyler's thought as he explores the waxing and waning of his faith, and from the assurance with which the author gathers up the disparate plot strands and brings them together at the end of the book. Strout's characters may not be visited by grace, but they certainly earn their hard-won conclusions. They are moved by what happens in their small town, and you will be too.
on March 14, 2006
Five Stars!! Spinning off of the theme of life in small town northern New England, Elizabeth Strout conjures up another winner of a novel detailing the inner most feellngs of the human condition and inter-personal relationships, buffeted by duty, change, and tragedy. Much like the preceding novel, "Amy and Isabelle", set in a different fictional New England town, this is MESMERIZING writing.
We already know from the editorial reviews that this novel is heading towards some sort of a surprise near the end, but in getting there Ms Strout's prose makes us want this journey to continue much longer! Considering the prosaic subject matter, the life of small town preacher Tyler Caskey, and his family, friends, parishioners, and gossipy townsfolk, she conjures up one heck of a fictional ride. Tyler, whose center of gravity balances between God's word and layman philosophers. Ms Strout effectively draws us in and keeps us beguiled with her rich cast of characters, her 'attention to detail' (Connie's hair, for instance; the minister's old shirt; or the effects of fall weather) and her elegant, stark prose, peppered with down-home phrases like "skitter-skatter". By the time Connie Hatch steps into the forefront, this novel is riveting in it's intensity and beauty. The church congregation scene is flat out wonderful writing, as are the final scenes between Tyler and George.
I guessed at a different ending, but Ms Strout is firmly in control and takes us where her compass wants us to be and it's a wonderful ending. This is a great fictional study in small town complexities and humanity. And she leaves us wanting more! Highly Recommended. Five Wonderful Stars!!
(Note: I found the Fournier typeface to be very elegant and readable. This review is based on an unabridged digital download, which makes digital disc a great new home storage alternative for novels. Thank you, Random House!)
Elizabeth Strout's "Abide with Me" is the story of Tyler Caskey, a minister in the small town of West Annett, Maine, in 1959. Tyler had been married to Lauren, a flighty woman from a wealthy family who could not adjust to living on a tight budget and acting the part of a "minister's wife." Lauren bore Tyler two daughters before she died, leaving the widower bewildered and shaken. Tyler's overbearing mother, Margaret, takes in his toddler, Jeannie, while Tyler tries to manage with five-year-old Katherine. He depends on his devoted housekeeper, Connie, to keep things afloat. However, since Lauren's death, Katherine has been nearly mute with grief and she has begun to act out in school. Although Tyler has always been a popular minister whose congregation admires his impassioned sermons, rumors begin to spread that he is not the man they thought he was. Soon, Tyler questions his vocation, and his faith in himself and the townspeople he has served so well starts to crumble.
One of Strout's strengths is her attention to detail. She describes West Annett so vividly that the reader has a perfect mental picture of this place and its inhabitants. Strout depicts the bored housewives who have little to occupy their minds other than shopping, cooking, cleaning, charity work, and gossip. Tyler's job is a difficult one. He has to advise his congregants when they are in trouble, keep the church going on the limited funds that are available, and withstand the barbs of certain outspoken individuals who have their own agendas.
The author's portrait of Tyler is magnificent. He is a gentle and highly intelligent man, whose idol is the great Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer, who was born in 1906, defied the Nazis and gave up his life for his beliefs. Tyler constantly quotes Bonhoeffer and thinks about his teachings, especially the statement that "man's sin was flight from responsibility." Tyler wants to take responsibility for his parish and for his family, but he lacks the joy and enthusiasm that used to propel him.
"Abide with Me" is eloquent, literate, and filled with gorgeous imagery. It has the ring of truth. We are all imperfect human beings struggling to live with our frailties, to give and receive love, and to meet life's hardships and obstacles with as much grace as we can muster. However, at times, we fail and what should we do when we disappoint ourselves and others disappoint us? How can we go on when our religious faith falters? Strout provides no easy answers, but she makes the reader empathize with her flawed characters, and we inevitably see ourselves in them. Although the book takes place in the late fifties, when women were repressed, racism was rampant, and the various social classes were strictly stratified, there is a universality in this work that still makes it worth reading today.
on May 24, 2007
I came away from a long read of 'The Terror' looking for something light and ran across 'Abide with Me' in the book store. I admit it was the cover that caught my eye of the sad little girl. This book was exactly what I expected. It was an easy read set in a somewhat depressing time about a minister and his daughter and what happens after his wife dies. I was a little let down that the issues with the daughter were not more played out and came to a tidy end after one converstation between them. The author seemed to hint at some sexual abuse between the wife's father and her sister and perhaps even her friends but that too was never made clear so we were left to wonder if this was what played into the wife's kleptomaniac/shallow/self centered personality. Still a very good read that I looked forward to picking up everyday and reading.
on March 24, 2006
All is not as it appears in 1959 in the small town of West Annett, Maine. Invisible currents beneath the surface sweep through the townspeople, including Reverend Tyler Caskey. His rather flamboyant and controversial wife has died, leaving behind two young daughters. Jeannie, the baby, goes to live with her grandmother but five-year-old Katherine, a troubled child, remains with her father. She doesn't speak, screams for her kindergarten teacher's constant attention, and has no friends.
Although his parishioners look up to him and constantly seek his counsel, Tyler himself has no true friends --- certainly no one with whom to share his daughter's difficulties. When Mary Ingersoll, Katherine's teacher, calls him in to divulge Katherine's problems, Tyler is befuddled. Mary mistakes his confusion for antagonism, and she is quick to confide in other women in town.
Tyler's congregation keeps secrets: a hotel tryst for one member, suspicion of burglary for another, while a third member confides that her husband hits her. Many of the secrets in West Annett are entrusted to Tyler, who earnestly tries to help his flock while protecting their confidences. Tyler himself has secrets, including the beginning of a warm connection between himself and his married housekeeper, Connie Hatch, which has the potential for an eventual genuine friendship. Speaking with Connie becomes more and more a focal point for Tyler to anticipate with pleasure during the course of the day.
Meanwhile, the townswomen gossip about the wild behavior of little Katherine Caskey and the rude behavior of her father during the teacher/parent conference with Mary Ingersoll. Subtly the animosity between Tyler and Mary escalates even as feelings of attraction strengthen between Tyler and Connie.
Tyler's relationship with his stern mother becomes more difficult when he makes plans to bring his baby home to live with him. The two young daughters will be cared for during the day by Connie. Tyler's mother objects, complaining that Connie is uneducated and strange and would be an inappropriate caretaker. She sets Tyler up with a woman she considers a suitable replacement for his wife as simultaneously bizarre circumstances snatch Connie out of reach.
Tyler's life is not what he expected nor could he ever have predicted he'd harbor the kind of dark secret he lives with, as his life crumbles apart around him. Despite his faith, his existence more and more resembles the ramshackle parsonage he lives in --- painted pink inside yet in dire disrepair.
Elizabeth Strout is brilliant at characterization; she strikes no false notes. Tyler Caskey is a richly tormented, many layered, and sympathetic main character. In fact, there is not one shallow stereotype in the entire cast. Her descriptive powers pack a potent wallop. The plot is leisurely, and properly so: a breathlessly fast-paced plot would do a disservice to the subtle personality studies and transformations in ABIDE WITH ME. The story's conclusion is both completely unexpected and utterly satisfying. I highly recommend this powerful, lyrical novel of sorrow, faith and redemption.
--- Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon (firstname.lastname@example.org)
on April 8, 2006
Describing a whole world in a few words, as someone said, and such a resonating world - this is what great literature is made of.
I couldn't put this book down. This is a writer with a sure grasp of the relationships between men and women, our foolish and guileless hopes and disappointments, how the landscape of our lives is reflected by everything around us. Every word in this book is true, even though it is fiction.
The ending of the book doesn't disappoint, either. Truly a marvelous work that will live in my mind for quite awhile.
I think it deserves 6 stars.
on April 10, 2006
I really enjoyed Strout's earlier novel, AMY AND ISABELLE, so when this book came out (seven years later!), I was willing to give it a read, sight unseen.
ABIDE WITH ME is a testament to Strout's skills. She manages to get an avowed secular humanist (me!) to dive deeply into this portrait of a Congregational minister and father who is in deep mourning for his wife. Feeling that his travails are minor compared to the losses that others throughout history have faced, he starts to lose faith in himself. Eventually, his daughters and congregation also begin to lose their faith in him as well.
Although the book deals with inner turmoil, there is a lot of dryly spun New England humor in it as well, a leavening that makes for a very satisfying prose mixture. I just hope that I don't have to wait another seven years for Strout's next gem of a novel.
on November 4, 2011
I really loved ABIDE WITH ME by Elizabeth Strout. I love the title, too, because "Abide With Me" is one of my favorite hymns, and it ran through my head all the way through this book. In 1959, in West Annett, Maine, a pastor named Reverend Tyler Caskey meets us head on with his life and the life of his congregation resting on faith in God, prayer, love for God, kindness for each other and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Tyler Caskey sees God everywhere. He sees Him in trees, flowers, his family's faces.
When the Caskeys first move to West Annett, a member of the church invites them for a potluck supper and all in the congregation are asked to attend. This is the first time they meet Mrs. Caskey, and the people are a bit put off by Lauren Caskey, the minister's wife, because she comes from a rich family and wears fashionable clothes, paints her nails, wears heels and also isn't all that interested in discussing just housekeeping and children. The community decides they don't like Lauren Caskey. Too hoity toity.
The Caskeys have two little girls, Jeannie, the baby, and Margaret, the 5-year-old. Before very long, there is a tragedy that strikes, leaving little Margaret unable to speak, except in short sentences which frustrates everyone at school. Not a lot of people like little Margaret.
Tyler tries to hold everyone together, but with little money and living in an old rundown farmhouse, it is a struggle. Margaret's teacher and a school psychologist try to find out what's wrong with her, but it only angers her father who is trying to do the right thing for his daughter. His housekeeper is a source of comfort to all of them, but she has a secret which eventually catches up to her and she must leave the Caskey household. Tyler is slowly losing his grip, losing his faith and losing his way until the day comes when he must look inside himself for his own strength and the ability to carry on while still believing that he can rely on God as well, and pull everyone's secrets out in the air so that they are not mired down with guilt and fear. Everyone's secrets, that is, except his own. He has to learn to rise above the criticism and rumors that people have started for the lack of anything else worthwhile to talk about in such a small place as West Annett.
ABIDE WITH ME is a very touching book and is beautifully written. I enjoyed it so much and I recommend it to readers of literary fiction. I found that I had to take my time in reading this book. It isn't one to fly through like a short mystery, but takes time and thought.
on April 9, 2006
This is truly a great book. This book is about life and human nature and it so well written and has so much meaning. I think Elizabeth Strout is on par with Fitzgerald and other great writers who delve into the grittiness of life. But this is in no way a depressing book. It is just the opposite. One of the best novels I have read in a long time.
on April 5, 2006
Just as when I read Amy and Isabelle, I was struck here by how Strout turns "quiet" on its head in Abide with Me. In the sense that this book takes place in a tiny and hard New England village, in the sense that it concerns a minister and his daughter treading at first ever so lightly in this village, it *is* quiet. And the landscape of Amy and Isabelle was "quiet" in the same sense: a mother and daughter living in one house, at first barely making any impressions at all. But what is distinctly not quiet here is what is going on inside the heads of these characters. And that is what Strout does so well: reveal the inner complexities of just about anyone, including those who at first you'd never believe could be interiorly complex. I think she does this best with Katherine, the minister's kindergartner, who is practically mute but who has a rich, thoughtful, even witty interior life. But many, if not most, of the characters in this novel, at first seeming to conform to the stereotype of hard, rough, private New Englanders, are revealed as having tremendous private pain, passion, and sensitivity. Meanwhile, the central figure in Abide with Me, the minister, starts out with a rich exterior in the form of his philosophical sermonizing, but hardly any interior at all. This is his lesson to learn, and Strout shows us exactly how he comes to gain self-awareness. Bravo to Strout for her characterizations. This is a beautiful book.