Abide with Me
Elizabeth Strout’s Abide with Me is one of the novels I selected for my pre-Festival reading and my first encounter with Strout, whose previous (and first) novel Amy and Isabelle received positive reviews from many critics. The center of Abide with Me is small-town New England minister Tyler Caskey, a widower with two young daughters. In the face of harsh, unexpected circumstances, and with his increasingly distant and bored congregation beginning to murmur, he struggles to honestly maintain his faith and his family.
Strout tells the minister’s story with compassion and thoughtfulness, in a style that might best be described as understated. She gets full marks for technical execution—relatable characters, not a fast-moving but a believable plot, and beautiful attention to setting—but the sum of these well-turned parts doesn’t feel quite whole to me. It lacks something difficult to identify, passion maybe, whatever edge that gets under the reader’s skin and lingers. There is a loveliness to the quiet telling, but it is just too quiet.
I also found her narrator ineffective. I’m one who thinks there is still a place in literature for the omniscient point of view, but in this case, the genderless narrator seemed to have no connection whatsoever to the action. The “you weren’t around back then, but I remember this delightful minister back in the 50s” device is too much of the “dear reader” thing—which sometimes I enjoy, as I do in Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody books, for instance—but without a solid grounding of that voice in the story, why should we accept his or her retelling? The unidentified narrator introduces the players and setting, but then fades out, making me think the device was useful in getting Strout started but probably should have been deleted or reformulated later.
Despite these criticisms, the book resounds with themes of everyday drudgery and disappointments, the big and small realities that shape human relations and choices; and because of this, it is far more nourishing than most of what makes it to the bestselling fiction lists. This is not an extraordinary novel, but it is a fine one, and I appreciated it enough to be willing to give her another try. Perhaps her recent Olive Kitteridge, which she discussed at the Festival (I didn’t attend her session, but several in my Circle group had good things to say about her talk), will posses whatever quality I found missing from this one.