Abide With Me by Elizabeth Strout
(Random House, 2006, 304 pages)
Novels that portray devoutly religious people and religious faith in a way that is both sympathetic and realistic are not terribly common. It seems that many authors have a hard time understanding, or at least articulating, how religious belief and a clear-eyed view of the difficulties and ugliness of life can coexist. Strout seems to understand, and she articulates this understanding beautifully. In part, this is because there is nothing sentimental about her depiction of what faith really is. She accurately and humorously portrays the foibles, pettiness, and downright cruelty of religious people without ever hinting that faith can be reduced to these shortcomings.
Strout tells the story of a young Congregational minister in 1950s Maine. His wife died one year ago, and Tyler Caskey is struggling to cope with his responsibilities to his congregation and to his two young daughters. Tyler had previously experienced his faith as a continuous sense of the presence of God. In the wake of his wife’s premature death, this immediacy is gone. As his sorrow deepens and he grows more and more distracted, his congregation slowly begins to lose patience with their formerly caring and attentive pastor. Tyler’s descent into despair somehow unveils the quiet despairs of his parishioners.
There is nothing terribly dramatic about any one of the plot points in this novel, yet Strout is able to imbue the rather mundane elements of life and relationships in a small town with a sense of drama and urgency. She believably and sympathetically portrays both the attractions and the disappointments of pastoral ministry. Tyler is continually meditating on the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and it seems that Strout’s reflection on such a sincere and profound theologian has manifested itself in a character whose faith is complex enough to make his a compelling character.
You can also read Julia’s review of this title.