There’s something about the gentleness in Anne Tyler’s portrayal of middle-class white Baltimore families that never plumps into cosiness. In Saint Maybe there is a helpful neighbour who is ‘one of those women who grow quilted in old age – her face a collection of pouches.’ And she has a hat like ‘a gray felt potty.’ This acute observation (and sly comment) makes Tyler’s books readable and re-readable – there’s more to notice every time.
Saint Maybe focuses on Ian Bedloe. Haunted by feelings of guilt and responsibility for his brother’s and sister-in-law’s deaths, he drops out of college to bring up their children. This is prompted when he drifts into the Church of the Second Chance. Their rules: first names, Good Works, no sugar – and atonement.
As Ian’s expected life trajectory drifts away, other things come in its place: the children he comes to love dearly, and his eccentric, ever-so-slightly-socially-inadequate church family. Reverend Emmet’s shirt, Ian notices, is ‘buttoned all the way to the neck in the fashion of those misfits who used to walk around high school with slide rules dangling from their belts.’
Saint Maybe doesn’t skirt the everyday sadness of life – family deaths, disabling illnesses and sheer day-to-day awkwardness. Some of the most moving sections are those from the children’s point of view. Thomas, Ian’s nephew, only has one faded photograph of his mother and projects the feelings he can’t remember on to it: ‘The frill at his mother’s neckline must have made pretzel sounds in his ear. Her bare arms must have stuck to his skin a little in the hot sunshine.’
But people muddle through, the children grow up and everyone turns out all right. This was the first Anne Tyler novel I read, and her mastery of the gentle battiness of everyday coping won me over – I’m a huge fan.
After a varied career in finance, commercial property and, latterly, welfare benefits advice, Helen Schofield started an English BA at the University of Leicester, and is in her second year. She lives in Leicester with her husband, grown-up daughters (sometimes) and Minnie the Mardy Cat. She is a fair-weather gardener, and also loves playing music and sewing.
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