There is something I find comforting about novels that explore the intricacy and detail of everyday life. I enjoy books that are no less eventful than the lives of the majority of people, but which shine a light on the universal truths hidden inside.
What strikes me most about Anne Tyler’s writing is the extent to which she makes the reader believe fully in the characters she has created and how she is able to do this in a relaxed, almost homely way so that the skill involved is almost obscured by the ease with which she creates an overwhelming sense of recognition.
Tyler is drawn to endearing, almost oddball families and explores the unexpected ways that people affect one another, for good and ill.
Saint Maybe centres on Ian, middle son of the Bedloe’s, who, as the novel opens in the 1960s, is a contented teenager, considering college and enjoying life with his friends and his girlfriend. When his beloved older brother Danny marries Lucy, a divorcee with two children already, the family equilibrium is upset. The announcement of Lucy’s pregnancy causes Ian to question her motives in marrying Danny and by making his concerns public, his actions bring about unforeseeable consequences, which devastate his family.
Overwhelmed by his guilt for which he feels he must atone, Ian drops out of college after one semester to help his parents care for the three orphaned children and joins an abstemious Protestant splinter Church called, ironically, Second Chance.
Tyler follows Ian over the years, as he raises Lucy’s children, becomes a carpenter and continues his misguided life of self-sacrifice. He is not alone in his task, with the wider family circle, including his beautifully sketched parents Doug and Bee, all pitching in to help. They are a ramshackle bunch who have all been touched by tragedy and have responded to it in different ways. What binds them is a wish for Ian to make something more of his life and to think of himself for once.
Ian is a wonderful central character, attractive and thoughtful but driven by doubt and dogged by his guilt. Tyler gives us small moments of drama – Ian decides to hire a private detective to track down the children’s real family, or toys with taking over the Second Chance Church – but she skilfully keeps the focus on his attempts at self-acceptance.
He was acutely conscious all at once of motion, of flux and possibility. He felt like an arrow – not an arrow shot by God but an arrow heading toward God, and if it took every bit of this only life he had, he believed that he would get there in the end.
The Church of the Second Chance is never far from the heart of the novel and it is incredibly refreshing to see organised religion depicted in such an affectionate and thoughtful way. Tyler knows how to mine the latent comedy, but she does so with a warmth and fondness for the communal experience the Church provides.
Even the slightest of characters here is wonderfully drawn. Tyler is particularly good at ‘getting’ children and her depiction of Lucy’s brood is striking in its detail. There is sensible Agatha, whose sardonic confidence and practicality belies her kind heart. Self-reliant Thomas remains in the background to some extent but grows into an appealing man. Finally, there is Daphne, the youngest, who has only ever known Ian and the Bedloe’s as family, constantly pitching herself towards trouble, only to draw back into her inherent goodness. It is she who, with a loving tease, refers to her Uncle Ian as “King Careful. Mr. Look-Both-Ways. Saint Maybe.”
The only false note in Saint Maybe is Tyler’s portrayal of the ‘foreigners’ – a group of Middle Eastern students who live nearby – whose depictions, while well-meaning, veer into caricature.
As in Earthly Possessions which I read back in April, Tyler’s gift is to create characters who struggle valiantly to make a life of their own, without losing their inherent goodness. Saint Maybe is a pragmatic narrative that celebrates family life without expunging the hurt, boredom and pain that families can impose their various members.
They were all that gave his life color, and energy, and … well, life.
Saint Maybe is a lovely book, and I mean that in the best way, depicting the tragedies of everyday life and of lives where doing what is best for others leads inexorably to a feeling of having suppressed something vital and authentic. It combines comedy and tragedy without veering into farce or sentimentality and showcases Tyler’s ability to make the everyday both entirely recognisable and extraordinary.
This is my second Anne Tyler read for Liz’s Re-Read Project and Saint Maybe has also been reviewed this month by at Liz and by Rebecca at Bookish Beck. I hope to take part again with The Accidental Tourist, although, I missed reading it when it was scheduled back in May!
READ ON: iBOOK
Number read: 333
number remaining: 413
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!