I’ve read a number of books in recent memory set in Maine – Red Hook Road, Maine, Olive Kitteridge – and this month added Elizabeth Strout’s Abide With Me to the mix. Maine is a good setting for a novel, with its long, unforgiving winters; its sturdy, unsentimental citizens; and its disdain for the fancy summer people from Massachusetts. Each of those play a role in Abide With Me, which is about Tyler Caskey, a young minister, who settles in a rural Maine town with his wife Lauren in the late 1950s. Lauren is a materialistic young woman who is uninterested in religion, and feels trapped and bored in West Annett, while Tyler is trying to build up a congregation and meet the needs of his community. Two little daughters are born, and then Lauren is diagnosed with cancer and passes away. Abide With Me is about Tyler’s grief and loneliness and the challenges he faces in raising his daughters and maintaining faith in God in the face of his loss. It is also about gossip and secrets, and the judgmental nature of small towns.
This is the third novel I have read by Elizabeth Strout (in addition to Amy and Isabelle and Olive Kitteridge) and once again I was struck by the power of her spare, unemotional writing. The book progressed a little slowly at times, but I like the way Strout dipped and weaved among different characters and subplots, as well as her slow teasing out of backstories. There is a lot of pain and sadness here, and Strout doesn’t shy away from it, especially where Tyler’s daughter Katherine is concerned. Strout adeptly conveys the loneliness and frankly the boredom in these small town lives, and the silent resentments and fury that builds up between spouses over time.
The ending was a little pat, and I could have done without some of the religious discussion throughout the book (particularly around a saint – or someone like a saint – that Tyler had read about and invoked in times of stress). But there was some good exploration of faith and forgiveness – and what role they each play when one has lost a loved one or has been wronged.
I listened to Abide With Me on audio and the narration was perfect. The performer, Bernadette Dunne, had the accents down perfectly and really imbued the voices with personality and character. She brought Strout’s words to life so convincingly that at times I felt as though the characters were in the room with me. This is one of the best audiobook narrations I’ve listened to, ever.