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.