Anne Tyler’s Saint Maybe

After reading Tyler’s most recent novel Noah’s Compass late last year, I’ve been looking forward to reading more of her work.  I finally managed to read Saint Maybe this week.  I wasn’t disappointed.

As I had mentioned previously, Tyler seems to have a way of pointing out the extraordinary in the ordinary and the mundane.  She weaves together the small details of people – their personalities, their relationships, their life circumstances – to create a magnificent story that pulled this reader into it before he realized it.

Through tragic circumstances, Ian Bedloe, a typical high school student in the mid 1960’s, finds himself the official (if not legal) guardian of his older brother’s three step children.  Because of the guilt he feels for what he sees as his part in the tragedy, Ian drops out of college after a semester to help his parents raise the children.  Slowly over the years, Ian’s friends and relationships change as a result of his commitment to the children.  While the novel ends on a happy note after the children are raised,  I wouldn’t call this a feel-good novel.  Tyler deftly stays away from making Ian too altruistic.  Ian’s commitment ranges from frustration and doubt to joy with all of the everyday details of life that fall in between.

When Ian drops out of college, he exchanges his aspirations of a career for an apprenticeship as a carpenter.  While at first he helps his “boss” install kitchen cabinets, he slowly learns carpentry as an art and helps turn the business into a custom design shop.  Ian’s slow development over the years into a skilled craftsman mirrored the slow development of his character through the commitment and sacrifice he made for his step-nieces and step-nephew.

Another aspect of the novel, which I found both odd and likable, involved the fact that early on in the story as Ian is trying to come to terms with what happened to his brother, he stumbles across a church – The Church of the Second Chance.  Ian remains a part of the church throughout the novel, in spite of his parents’ concerns.  Tyler manages to steer away from making the church too “holy” and too “good”; however, she also prevents the church from being too easily made fun of.  The changes that the church brings about in Ian come more from simple commitment and sacrifice than from any answers they could give to him.  Finding answers (and in some cases not finding answers) becomes one of the novel’s themes.  I enjoyed the scene where the oldest niece, sometime around age 16, decides she no longer believes what the church teaches and doesn’t want to go.  Ian allows her to stop attending-much to her surprise.  

My favorite passage came toward the end of the novel when Ian thought back over all the people he had encountered in his life:

Apparently, he thought, there were people in this world who simply never came clear…In the end you had to accept that the day would never arrive when you finally understood what they were all about.

For some reason, this made him supremely happy.  He pulled the covers around him and said a prayer of thanksgiving and fell headlong into sleep.



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