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ABIDE WITH ME
Elizabeth Strout
Random House
Fiction
ISBN-10: 1400062071
ISBN-13: 9781400062072

Where does the loneliness we feel take us? How do we recover from terrible loss and redeem guilt? And how do we live the life we've been given? In this beautiful sophomore novel, Elizabeth Strout (AMY AND ISABELLE) carefully constructs ABIDE WITH ME, which explores faith, community, numbing loss, the tremendous power of words used carelessly, and redemption.

It's 1959, and the threat of nuclear destruction is uppermost in the minds of Americans. Against the gray cold backdrop of northern Maine, Reverend Tyler Caskey deals with his own devastation as he grieves the loss of his colorful and lively wife, Lauren. The once vibrant and articulate pastor is now reduced to reading old sermons to his Congregationalist church on Sunday mornings and is barely able to cope with each day. His family is splintered: his youngest daughter, Jeannie, has been parceled out to his unloving mother to raise, and Katherine has become alternately sullen and silent or screaming and acting out in kindergarten.

Caskey's housekeeper, Connie Hatch, tries to keeps order in the 100-year-old farmhouse in the small town of West Annett that serves as parsonage, but her own terrible secrets are a ticking time bomb. Tyler's congregation is becoming impatient with his grief; their gossip is about to involve him in events that will change his perceptions of his life and his abilities, while causing him to face a few secrets of his own. Dealing with problems is something he's not particularly good at. Lauren's final words ring in his ears: "Tyler, you're such a coward, you know."

The colorless town, with its rather colorless meals, is nevertheless richly portrayed, from the gold gingko leaves in the autumn to such lovely phrases as "her earlier visit to his office hung over his shoulders like a cape dampened by rain." Strout adeptly handles the flashbacks that slowly flesh out Tyler and Lauren's courtship and early marriage, and the terrible days leading up to her death. Some very specific sexual details, however, will limit conservative readers' enjoyment of the book.

One of Strout's strengths is her well-developed characters. Their interior lives are much more complex than the simplicity they present to the world, and their secrets darker than anyone would suspect. Strout makes them interesting yet believable. Connie is 46 years old, part Indian, with beautiful green eyes and a birthmark on the side of her nose, "red as raspberry jam." She alternately repels the reader and attracts. Tyler's difficult mother, who criticizes and repeats the same stories over and over again, will be recognizable as a character type most of us have encountered, especially in the church.

Tyler is a curious mixture of strength and vulnerability. "It might have been this quality, as much as any other, that continued to make the minister so popular with his congregation: these moments of sudden bafflement, deep uncertainty. Surfacing from a man who appeared always in control of himself, who shouldered his misfortunes with the gentle air of an abstracted acceptance, these instances of open-faced bewilderment allowed people, particularly women but by no means only women, to view him as surprisingly and suddenly vulnerable…" Tyler lives in fear that he will lose his connection to God, "The Feeling," those moments of transcendence that have been so important to him. It's our bond with Tyler and especially his relationship with his daughter, Katherine, that ensures we won't put the book down until the very last page.

Redemption and yearning are symbolized by the old hymn lyrics from Abide with Me, which appear throughout the book: "Abide with me; fast falls the eventide…The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide." Tyler comes to find that he isn't given an easy life, but it's a life in which God offers his presence. Readers who enjoyed Gail Godwin's EVENTIDE, Kent Haruf's PLAINSONG or Susan Howatch's Starbridge series should find this novel an absorbing pleasure

   --- Reviewed by Cindy Crosby (phrelanzer@aol.com)

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