Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Review: Saint Maybe, by Anne Tyler

Where lies the nexus between obligation and love? This is a question that author Anne Tyler tackles in her 1991 novel Saint Maybe, about a family altered by tragedy and forced to confront the responsibilities that fate bestows upon them against their wishes. Along the way, we learn that all love carries with it some form of duty, and all duty, even when it’s not of our immediate choosing, can bring with it a kind of love.

As the novel opens, in the late 1960s, the Bedloe family of Baltimore, MD appears to have an idyllic life: Breading winning father, loving homemaker mom, and three children at the cusp (or just beginning) their adult lives and destined for happiness and success. Youngest son Ian is in his last year of high school; middle child Danny is a couple years out and has a good job at the post office; and eldest daughter Claudia is happily married and popping out the babies. But their perfect lives take a turn when Danny announces that he has fallen in love with a mysterious customer at the post office, a divorcee named Lucy who has two small children from her previous marriage, Agatha and Thomas. The Bedloes are somewhat stirred up by the sudden appearance of this strange woman in their lives, but are supportive when Danny announces that he and Lucy are rapidly getting married.

Seven months later, Lucy gives birth to their daughter Daphne, whom everyone claims was simply premature. But Ian grows suspicious, and he soon begins to think that there is more to Lucy than meets the eye. Convinced that she is cheating on his brother, Ian confronts Danny about his suspicions. Shortly thereafter, Danny is involved in a fatal car accident that may have been a suicide. The Bedloes are now on the hook to help Lucy with her children, even if one of them may not even be their own blood.

Things get complicated further when Lucy’s life spirals out of control and she dies from an overdose of sleeping pills. Now her three kids are orphans, and Ian, feeling guilty that his (as it turns out, unfounded) suspicions about Lucy caused his brother’s suicide, and, by extension, Lucy’s death, turns to an obscure religion called the Church of the Second Chance to help with his troubled conscience. The minister, a man named Reverend Emmett, tells Ian that he cannot simply ask God for forgiveness. He must act in order to be forgiven.

So Ian steps up to the plate to raise the children himself. By now he has completed less than a year of college, but drops out to assume the role of parent. He takes a blue-collar carpenter job to pay the bills. The years pass, and the novel details how Ian comes to raise these children who have a tenuous connection to him at best, and how the act of doing so causes opportunity after opportunity to pass him by. Even as the children age and find love and ambitions and desires of their own, Ian is forever saddled by both his guilt and by his devotion to his religion that keeps him in this position of penitence. The decades pass. Near the end of the novel, with Ian now in his early 40s and Daphne, Agatha and Thomas all grown up, Ian finds love with a 30-year-old woman named Rita. The problem? She wants to have kids, but Ian feels that that phase of his life has already passed. But the nexus of love and obligation meets again, and Ian ends up giving Rita what she wants and finds a way to make himself happy even though their wishes do not align.

There is obviously a lot going on in this expansive novel, but Saint Maybe never feels tedious or overwritten. Like a lot of Tyler’s writing, this novel seems to slip between genres. In this way, it reminds me a little of the works of John Irving: not quite commercial fiction, but not quite reliably literary either. What we do have here are the tropes of family and devotion and God and the sheer drudgery that is sometimes needed to meet the demands of each. Saint Maybe reminds us that the structures of our self image and the obligations that life that throw randomly at us are not necessarily at odds. They can be inescapably bundled together, and even in the face of something terrible happening that we did not expect, we can still use the vagaries of fate to build a life for ourselves that has meaning and purpose.

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