Sunday, May 07, 2006

Abide With Me

by Elizabeth Strout

Probably this novel won’t appeal to everyone. It is not a book that depends in any grand way on its plot. It is about grief, courage, humility and healing, and depends entirely on the evolving portrait Strout paints of Tyler Caskey, the complicated, troubled minister who stands at the book’s center. (I’m pleased to say that Liz Strout, author of Amy and Isabelle, was one of my terrific teachers in the MFA Program at Queens University of Charlotte.)

Caskey’s wife, with whom he was perhaps ill-matched, has died. Caskey is grieving, but more visibly so is Katherine, the older of their two daughters. The minister is not without flaws, and he comes through the course of the book to understand those flaws so well that they threaten to derail him. And, though flawed, he has enormous reservoirs of patience for the gossipy members of his congregation, whom Strout has made somewhat laughable. How Caskey restrains himself is beyond me, but then he’s a minister and I’m not.

Caskey on several occasion considers the difference between “cheap grace”—unearned forgiveness—and “costly grace”—forgiveness earned through real sacrifice. I think, ultimately, that’s what the book is about. For what he feels he has done, Caskey won’t forgive himself until he has truly suffered. He has to reach rock bottom first, as do the others of his congregants who desire forgiveness.

Here’s a brief excerpt:
“Outside in the chilly air, he tried to find an equilibrium within the enormousness of his disappointment over his visit with George. He sat in his car a few moments, looking at the campus, the massive gray trunks of the elms before him. Abide with me; fast falls the eventide . . . Odd to think that had been his favorite hymn for years, because what had he really known until this year about the sadness and pleading tone of that hymn? The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide. Tyler started the car, drove down the hill, past the church where he’d been married. When other helpers fail and comforts flee . . . O Lord, abide with me.
There is a great deal going on here just below the surface of the story: it is the ’50s and the arms race has begun, the threat of nuclear war is on everyone’s minds and tongues, and bombshelters have sprouted in backyards. Women play a secondary role. It's a different time, and yet . . .

Here's an excellent interview with Elizabeth Strout: The Atlantic Monthly.


Myfanwy Collins said...

Nice review, Cliff. I'll look for this book. I thought Amy and Isabelle was fantastic.

katrina said...

Excellent review, Cliff. Thanks!