One of the first books I chose to read after I finished my thesis was Elizabeth Strout‘s 2006 novel Abide with Me. Strout is the author of Olive Kitteridge (Random House, 2008), for which she won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Abide with Me is a national bestseller described by one reviewer in The Washington Post as a novel containing a “mysterious combination of hope and sorrow.” The reviewer goes on to say, “[Strout] sees all these wounded people with heartbreaking clarity, but she has managed to write a story that cradles them in understanding and that, somehow, seems like a foretaste of salvation.”
I was excited to return to Strout’s writing after reading Olive Kitteridge three years ago. (Read my review here.) I had been impressed by the subtlety and compassion in Strout’s “novel-in-stories,” and I was pleased to find a similar tone in this earlier novel.
Abide with Me is set in a small New England town where pastor Tyler Caskey and his daughter Katherine attempt to respond to his wife’s recent death as well as to the situations that arise in a small-town congregation. Even though, as a novel, this book maintains a tighter focus on Caskey than Olive does on its central character, there are no truly “peripheral” characters. Strout captures complex human emotions in a way I can only describe as breath-ful: Strout’s narrator seems to breathe along with each character, whether in pain, shame, or joy, and readers are encouraged to do the same.
In the same measured rhythm that characterizes Olive, Strout circles back to the same basic stories, each time in a new voice, with a new detail, and from a slightly different angle.
In this respect, Strout’s work reminds me of a craftsman repeatedly polishing the same piece of wood with different grades of sandpaper until the underlying features are clearly visible. The most striking images of grace, intimacy, and vulnerability are not expressed by characters so much as felt in the novel’s denouement.