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Abide with Me: A Novelby Elizabeth Strout
"[T]his lovely second novel confirms Strout as the possessor of an irresistibly companionable, peculiarly American voice: folksy, poetic, but always as precise as a shadow on a brilliant winter day....Abide with Me...has this further resonance: it embodies humane qualities — excellence and conscientious exactness — that fortify us in our own version of its hero's quest." Joseph O'Neill, The Atlantic Monthly (read the entire Atlantic Monthly review)
Synopses & Reviews
In her luminous and long-awaited new novel, bestselling author Elizabeth Strout welcomes readers back to the archetypal, lovely landscape of northern New England, where the events of her first novel, Amy and Isabelle, unfolded. In the late 1950s, in the small town of West Annett, Maine, a minister struggles to regain his calling, his family, and his happiness in the wake of profound loss. At the same time, the community he has served so charismatically must come to terms with its own strengths and failings — faith and hypocrisy, loyalty and abandonment — when a dark secret is revealed.
Tyler Caskey has come to love West Annett, "just up the road" from where he was born. The short, brilliant summers and the sharp, piercing winters fill him with awe — as does his congregation, full of good people who seek his guidance and listen earnestly as he preaches. But after suffering a terrible loss, Tyler finds it hard to return to himself as he once was. He hasn't had The Feeling — that God is all around him, in the beauty of the world — for quite some time. He struggles to find the right words in his sermons and in his conversations with those facing crises of their own, and to bring his five-year-old daughter, Katherine, out of the silence she has observed in the wake of the family's tragedy.
A congregation that had once been patient and kind during Tyler's grief now questions his leadership and propriety. In the kitchens, classrooms, offices, and stores of the village, anger and gossip have started to swirl. And in Tyler's darkest hour, a startling discovery will test his congregation's humanity — and his own will to endure the kinds of trials that sooner or later test us all.
In prose incandescent and artful, Elizabeth Strout draws readers into the details of ordinary life in a way that makes it extraordinary. All is considered — life, love, God, and community — within these pages, and all is made new by this writer's boundless compassion and graceful prose.
"Strout's satisfying follow-up to her 1999 debut, Amy and Isabelle, follows a recent widower from grief through breakdown to recovery in 1959 smalltown Maine. The father of two young girls and the newly appointed minister of the fictional town of West Annett, Tyler Caskey is quietly devastated by wife Lauren's death following a prolonged illness. Tyler's older daughter Katherine is deeply antisocial at school and at home; his adorable younger daughter Jeannie has been sent to live upstate with Tyler's overbearing mother. Talk begins to spread of Katherine's increasing unsoundness and of Tyler's possible affair with his devoted-though-suspicious housekeeper, Connie Hatch. It's spearheaded by the gossipy Ladies' Aide Society, whose members bear down on Tyler like the dark clouds of a gathering storm. Meanwhile, Tyler's grief shades into an angry, cynical depression, leaving him unable to parent his troubled daughter or minister to his congregation, and putting his job and family at risk. Strout's deadpan, melancholy prose powerfully conveys Tyler's sense of internal confinement. The uplifting ending arrives too easily, but on the whole, Strout has crafted a harrowing meditation of exile on Main Street." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Every novel is about a crisis of faith — in one's self, one's partner, one's prospects — but novels about religious leaders often portray crisis in explicitly spiritual terms, and that can be hell. Too often, churchy language forces the rich ambiguity of good fiction to get 'left behind.' Lately, though, a few novels full of Christian faith have managed to transcend sectarian piety and speak to... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) a large, diverse audience. Each year welcomes another splendid novel into the fold: Gail Godwin's 'Evensong,' Rachel Basch's 'The Passion of Reverend Nash,' Marilynne Robinson's 'Gilead.' And now, from Elizabeth Strout, comes 'Abide With Me,' a deeply moving story about a Congregational minister stunned by the death of his wife. As she did in her best-selling debut, 'Amy and Isabelle,' Strout sets her second novel in a small New England town, whose natural beauty she returns to again and again as this tale unfolds against the background of the Cold War tensions of the 1950s. She concentrates on the gentle comedy and muffled tragedy among people who live and work and pray so close together that every sigh blows against someone else's face. Her hero is Rev. Tyler Caskey, a friendly, thoughtful widower just barely carrying on with the duties of fatherhood and church. Though he tries to hide it, his parishioners' problems look petty through the fog of his grief. Meanwhile, his beloved elder daughter, 5-year-old Katherine, is starting to feel like a cross to bear. In the months following her mother's death, she has stopped speaking, she cries and screams at school, and she wets her bed at night. Her teachers, portrayed in all their perky condescension, begin drawing up plans for psychological treatment; neighbors swap shocking stories of her behavior, their concern stained with self-righteousness. Largely oblivious to all these maneuvers and blinded to the severity of his daughter's condition by the depth of his sorrow, Tyler remains committed to earnest prayer. He befriends the simple, depressed woman who cleans his house without considering how this friendship might look to his nosy parishioners. Instead of attending to these brewing tensions, he turns for inspiration to the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor who resisted the Nazis. But Bonhoeffer's extraordinary example only exacerbates Tyler's sense of inadequacy. 'If Bonhoeffer could spend a year in a prison cell,' Strout writes, 'only to find himself taken naked out into the woods to be hanged, then he, Tyler Caskey, could pay his debts, care for his children, and do his job.' It's an entirely reasonable conclusion, except that it demands subjecting himself to the kind of standard he cannot endure. Raised on a strict doctrine of self-sacrifice and consideration for others, Tyler suffers through this dark period entirely unable to ask for assistance or tend to his own needs. What's most distressing to him is that his sense of God's presence, 'the profound and irreducible knowledge that God was right there,' now seems beyond his perception. 'He hoped these days,' Strout writes, 'to have a moment of exalted understanding come to him as the "chance" result of his disciplined prayer, (but) no, Tyler was earthly bound.' Strout portrays this spiritual agony with tenderness and a deep respect for the faith that Tyler believes will someday bring him solace. What an extraordinarily delicate position this is for an author of modern literary fiction. One careless move and the whole novel crystallizes into something shiny and doctrinaire — or, just as bad, dissolves into the pool of sophisticated cynicism about traditional Christian faith. The story frequently shifts away from Tyler's travails to catch snippets of the conversations swirling around town, in various degrees of concern and outrage, about the minister's withdrawn behavior. I can't recall a more incisive portrayal of the casual cruelty of gossip, but Strout has no interest in making villains. Tyler's critics have their own problems: marriages grown cold and sullen, illnesses that offer no relief but death, crippling anxieties about the future. The organist and her husband, a deacon, have come to blows, each of them deeply resentful of the other's unhappiness. Even the flashback of Tyler's marriage, cut short by a fast-moving cancer, shows a relationship wholly at odds with his idealized memory of it. Dark as much of this beautiful novel is, there's finally healing here, and, as Tyler should have known, it comes not from strength and self-sufficiency but from accepting the inexplicable love of others. In one beautiful page after another, Strout captures the mysterious combination of hope and sorrow. She sees all these wounded people with heartbreaking clarity, but she has managed to write a story that cradles them in understanding and that, somehow, seems like a foretaste of salvation. Ron Charles is a senior editor of The Washington Post Book World." Reviewed by Ron Charles, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"[A] quiet, graceful second novel...earnest, introspective, and prone to occasional outbursts of deeply felt emotion....Readers who enjoyed...Amy and Isabelle will find much to move them in this tale..." Booklist
"[T]he redemptive ending doesn't quite make up for the gloom and spitefulness of the preceding pages. A melancholy tale of faith lostand found and an unhappy look at small-town life." Kirkus Reviews
"[R]adiates a humane, life-affirming warmth....Abide With Me is a book to curl up with on a bleak day, a book that isn't embarrassed to assert that 'where there are people, there is always the hope of love.'" San Francisco Chronicle
"[D]eeply moving....Dark as much of this beautiful novel is, there's finally healing here...In one beautiful page after another, Strout captures the mysterious combination of hope and sorrow." Washington Post
"Abide with Me is at times a melancholy novel whose events often leave the reader feeling bereft. But, in the end, Tyler Caskey remains true to his ideals, and this fact is deeply satisfying." Charlotte Observer
"Readers will embrace this touching novel about the nature of faith and the responsibilities of community and family." San Antonio Express-News
About the Author
Elizabeth Strout's first novel, Amy and Isabelle, won the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction and the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize, and was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award as well as the Orange Prize in England. Her short stories have been published in a number of magazines, including the New Yorker. Currently she is on the faculty of the low-residency M.F.A. program at Queens University in Charlotte, North Carolina. She lives in New York City.
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