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Critical Review by Jay Parini
SOURCE: "The Accidental Convert," in The New York Times Book Review, August 25, 1991, pp. 1, 26.
In the following review, Parini states that Tyler's Saint Maybe is "a realistic chronicle that celebrates family life without erasing the pain and boredom that families almost necessarily inflict upon their members."
Anne Tyler likes to break America's heart, and she will do it again in Saint Maybe. Her subject, as ever, is family life, with the family pictured as a kind of leaky but durable vessel that ferries her motley characters down the tortuous river of time. Ms. Tyler is fascinated by the unexpected ways that people affect one another, for good and ill, and this fascination has given her shelf of books an impressive unity. Saint Maybe, her 12th novel, is vintage Tyler, delicately stamped, like a watermark, with her intimate and unmistakable voice.
One is used by now to Ms. Tyler's oddball families, which any self-respecting therapist would call "dysfunctional" but which Ms. Tyler's readers find endearing. There are, for instance, the Pecks of Searching for Caleb, the Tulls of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, the Learys of The Accidental Tourist. An inexplicable centripetal force hurls these relatives upon one another, catches them in a dizzying inward spiral of obligation, affection and old-fashioned guilt—as well as an inexpressible longing for some perfect or "normal" family in a distant past that never really was.
Almost every novel by Anne Tyler begins with a loss or absence that reactivates in the family some primordial sense of itself, and Saint Maybe is no exception. The novel rocks on the fulcrum of its hero, Ian Bedloe, who believes himself responsible for the death of his older brother, Danny, killed in a late-night car crash after an angry confrontation with Ian. Danny's wife, grief-stricken and unstable, soon commits suicide, leaving behind three children (two from her previous marriage, to a man who has vanished). Overwhelmed by guilt, Ian takes unusual measures to redeem himself. Inspired by a weird but engaging little Protestant splinter group called the Church of the Second Chance, he drops out of college after only one semester to help his parents care for the orphaned children.
Ian, the Saint Maybe of the title, sponges up our emotions as Ms. Tyler tracks him fondly through several decades. At 17, he has "the Bedloe golden-brown hair, golden skin, and sleepy-looking brown eyes." His fairy-tale good looks are somehow enhanced by his off-hand way of dressing, and when he becomes a cabinetmaker (as Jesus was a carpenter?), specializing in fine furniture built without nails according to ancient principles, he has every opportunity to dress down. We rarely see him—even at church—in anything but jeans and a T-shirt. Two decades later, he is described excitedly by Rita diCarlo—a zany mansaver perhaps too reminiscent of Muriel Pritchett in The Accidental Tourist: "The clothes in his closet smell of nutmeg…. He has this really fine face; it's all straight lines. I thought at first his eyes were brown but then I saw they had a clear yellow light to them like some kind of drink; like cider." Rita, as one might expect, comes vividly into Ian's life before the novel closes.
Ms. Tyler charges Ian Bedloe with a wonderfully subtle sexual presence. She does this, cannily, by making his avoidance of sexuality a defining characteristic. His sexual life begins predictably, with a pretty girlfriend called Cicely, with whom he sleeps on the weekends while at college. Once he joins the Church of the Second Chance, the sex stops, and Cicely, alas, falls away. Ms. Tyler peeps into Ian's fantasy life: "In his daydreams, he walked into services one morning and found a lovely, golden-haired girl sitting in the row just ahead. She would be so intent on the sermon that she wouldn't even look his way: she had grown up in a religion very much like this one, it turned out, and believed with all her heart. After the Benediction Ian introduced himself, and she looked shy and pleased." And so forth, onward and heavenly upward.
Only Anne Tyler could make an arresting novel out of material like this. She does so, I think, by placing Ian at a series of perilous crossroads, as when he becomes frustrated with unclehood and hires a detective called Eli Everjohn (who also appears in Searching for Caleb) to find his sister-in-law's first husband. Meanwhile the reader bites off a few nails, waiting to see if Ian will do the proverbial "right thing"—not for himself, so much, as for the children.
Ms. Tyler is one of the few contemporary writers who can really "do" children, and her brood steals the reader's heart. There is homely Agatha, whose wry confidence anticipates a moving turn at the story's end. There is Thomas, her self-contained younger brother, who remains firmly in the shadows throughout the novel. And there is Daphne, the youngest, who has everybody's number; sassy but lovable, she teeters on the brink of waywardness, always retreating at the last moment into a kind of idiosyncratic goodness. It is she who, in a moment of gentle derision, refers to her Uncle Ian as "King Careful. Mr. Look-Both-Ways. Saint Maybe."
The Church of the Second Chance is never far from the center of this novel, and Ms. Tyler mines its comic potential with ruthless affection. This genial flock of fundamentalist misfits has a kindly but firm shepherd in its founder. Reverend Emmett. (Emmett is his first name, since last names are scorned by Second Chancers; they remind one too much "of the superficial—the world of wealth and connections and who came over on the Mayflower.") What binds the members of this distinctly downscale congregation is their adamant belief in the need for "amending"—for showing God they are serious about making up for past sins by doing good deeds. Ian, for instance, makes amends for his part in his brother's death by helping to raise Agatha, Thomas and Daphne.
For all his noble self-sacrifice, Ian is hardly alone in raising the children. Ms. Tyler is intrigued by family circles, and she draws a wide one in Saint Maybe. Ian's parents, Bee and Doug, are the sort of people who can be found in any McDonald's on a Saturday afternoon with a gang of grandchildren. They say things like "hot dog" and exude good will. Their tumbledown house on Waverly Street in Baltimore is a world unto itself; indeed, as the "real" world grows steadily less tolerable down the decades, the Bedloes rely increasingly on one another for the little decencies, the graceful touches, that make life bearable.
Saint Maybe is not without flaws (I'm reminded of Randall Jarrell's definition of a novel as a long narrative that has something wrong with it). Ian's abrupt decision to drop everything, including his sex life, to assuage his guilt is not foreshadowed: Ms. Tyler doesn't sketch Ian's adolescence with sufficient particularity to make his decision plausible. And a fair number of the peripheral characters—like the continuously changing group of "foreigners," students who live nearby and who attend the Bedloes' annual Christmas fest—seem astonishingly caricatured.
Nonetheless, I adored Saint Maybe. It's not as complex a narrative as either The Accidental Tourist or Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. Nor is it a whimsical tour de force like Breathing Lessons, which won a Pulitzer Prize. But in many ways it is Anne Tyler's most sophisticated work, a realistic chronicle that celebrates family life without erasing the pain and boredom that families almost necessarily inflict upon their members. Ian Bedloe, for his part, sits near the top of Ms. Tyler's fine list of heroes. Exactly how she makes us care so much about him remains a mystery to me. That is, perhaps, the mystery of art.
This section contains 1,285 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)