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.
"In Strout's graceful if languid second novel, set in the cold northern reaches of New England during the Cold War, Tyler Caskey is a young minister tending to the faith of his small, gossipy parish. He's also struggling with the aftermath of his wife's premature death, which has left him with two little girls to raise. What the plot lacks in pace and surprise, Strout makes up for with intelligent, revealing portraits of many characters, and Raphael's versatile voice makes them even more memorable. Her voice shrinks remarkably to speak the lines of Caskey's traumatized older daughter; turns gruff and unhappy for Charles Austin, a church deacon wrestling with his own secret demons; and ratchets up into startlingly cold and imperious territories for Caskey's meddling mother. Raphael deftly switches from the plummy, slightly British-accented voice she uses for most of the narration to speak in the drawn-out, nasal tones of Caskey's plainspoken, friendly housekeeper. Though the abridgment cuts out some of the background story, events are still sometimes drawn out. But fans of such closely observed period pieces will no doubt revel in Strout's evocative prose and in Raphael's richly textured interpretation." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"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." Washington Post
"With superlative skill, Strout challenges us to examine what makes a good story and what makes a good life." The New Yorker
"A melancholy tale of faith lostand found and an unhappy look at small-town life." Kirkus Reviews
"The power of Abide With Me is its true reflection of the moments that guide or misdirect a life. These often aren't the moments of high drama, though the death of a loved one can be a compelling force." Denver Post
"[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
"Strout's story is dark and her characters often reveal their less positive sides, but in the end, she gives us individuals whose lives are deepened and transformed in this sensitive and challenging work." Rocky Mountain 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.
Reading Group Guide
1. Do you think small-town life is that different from city life?
2. What do you think the “voice” of this novel is telling you, besides what it says? That is, what kind of tone does it set-what kind of character (not the author) might be telling you this story?
3. Pick out some of the passages about nature in the ﬁrst part of the book and see if you can discern the authors implicit attitude toward the New England landscape and toward nature in general.
4. What does the state of Tylers house at the beginning of the book say about him and his family? Are they different by the end?
5. This book raises the question of whether a fathers parenthood is necessarily different from a mothers-a question that concerns us to this day. What do you think about this controversial topic?
6. Why do you think Tylers daughter, Katherine, stops speaking after her mothers death? When and why does she ﬁnd her voice again?
7. This book is set during the height of the Cold War. Do you think the era plays an important role in the story, or is it just a backdrop?
8. What are Tylers strengths and what are his weaknesses? How do they affect his ability to perform his role in the community?
9. The role of the clergy in small communities during the ﬁfties is presented vividly through the story of Tyler Caskey. Do you think the clergys role has changed over time in these places and in general?
10. Whether you are religious or not, how did you respond to Tyler Caskeys intense involvement with matters of faith and belief?
11. In some ways, Abide with Me is about class distinctions, even in this egalitarian community. How conscious were you of this aspect of the book as you read it?
12. Find examples where the weather serves as a metaphorical backdrop for Tylers story, and explain.
13. The novel uses domestic interiors, architecture, and lighting to complement its scenes and themes. Can you give some examples of this?
The Reverend Tyler Caskey wants to be a good husband, a good father, and a good minister to his congregation in this small New England town. Charismatic and kind-hearted, he has been loved by many, and has successfully maneuvered his way around the difficult head deacon, Charlie Austin, a man traumatized by his war experience, and whose pain is private, but pernicious to others. Then an unexpected tragedy causes Tyler to act outside his system of belief, and he begins to lose his sense of self, as well as the good wishes of his community. His only friend becomes his quiet housekeeper, Connie Hatch.
In writing this book I was interested in the following issues:
Compassion. Is compassion a luxury? Something we are able provide only when things are going well — or well enough — in our own lives?
Our moral code and sense of self. What happens when we find ourselves acting outside our own previously devised moral code? How do we reconcile the difference between the way we assumed our life would be, and what life actually brings to us?
Criminal vs. non-criminal acts. Why has society decided that some things we might do are offenses against the state and punishable by the law, while other acts fall into that murky area of a more personal decision about what is right and what is wrong?
Religious faith. How do we maintain our religious faith when we find ourselves acting in ways that go against what we think we believe in? What is it like to be a minister whose job is to be the spiritual leader of his community when his sudden grief barely allows him to hang on?
Secrets. When does a secret begin to erode our sense of self and cause a feeling of isolation that spills pain onto others? When do we decide to keep a secret to ourselves?
Psychological theories vs. religious beliefs. How effective can we be in understanding the feelings — particularly of children — by applying a psychological interpretation to their experience? How can these theories be integrated into religious thought?
Love vs. fear. What is it that causes the power of love to emerge and become stronger than the power of fear? And how does this affect not only our personal lives, but the state of the world?
I write because people amaze me, and life awes me. I write because I hope that by telling the stories of others, and by reading the stories of others, we can possibly see the world in a larger way, and that we can enjoy a good, old-fashioned storytelling experience along the way.