Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 863
The Bedloes in Saint Maybe are a typical Anne Tyler family: parents Doug and Bee, their married daughter Claudia, and their sons Danny (the “golden boy” ex-jock) and Ian (the typical high school senior). Neighbors consider them an all-American family, but the Bedloes do not really communicate; thus, they remain detached from each other. Just as their holiday meals are a collection of hors d’oeuvres, the family remains a group of individuals whose links to each other are little more intimate than the family’s links to the ever-changing groups of neighborhood exchange students who temporarily share their lives.
As the novel opens, Danny Bedloe introduces his family to Lucy, “the woman who’s changed my life”; the novel concludes, more than twenty years later, as Ian Bedloe introduces his family to his infant son, Joshua, and contemplates that life-changing introductions actually are everyday occurrences. For Ian, most of these life changes result from what he considers his responsibility for the deaths of Danny and Lucy. After Ian accuses Lucy of marital infidelity, Danny drives into a wall, perhaps deliberately. Likewise, a few months later, when Lucy dies of a drug overdose, Ian again blames himself, though other members of the Bedloe family frustrate his redemption by insisting these deaths are accidents and thus denying him any role. Nevertheless, Ian feels an overpowering guilt.
Searching for atonement, Ian is drawn to the Reverend Emmett’s Church of the Second Chance, an evangelical sect that has discarded traditional forms such as baptism and communion, focusing instead on confession and penance. The Reverend Emmett, a former seminarian, tells Ian that reparations must be concrete and practical, so Ian drops out of college, takes a job as a carpenter (eventually becoming a skilled cabinetmaker), and becomes a surrogate parent to Danny and Lucy’s three orphans—Agatha, Thomas, and Daphne. Initially Bee and Doug are reluctant to take responsibility for Agatha and Thomas, who are not Danny’s children, so for several years Ian attempts to locate their birth father. Eventually, though, the Bedloes learn that all three children are truly orphans. Ian formally adopts the older children, giving them the Bedloe name. However, he is particularly close to Daphne, whose reckless approach to life is in direct contrast to Ian’s caution; she is the one who gives him the nicknames “Saint Maybe” and “Mr. Look Both Ways.”
In a series of vignettes, the novel chronicles Ian’s struggles toward redemption—and his setbacks—as he tries to compensate for misjudging Lucy and forcing Danny to recognize that Daphne probably is not his child. Although he believes he has accepted responsibility, Ian apparently does not believe that religion alone has expiated his guilt; thus, even though his neighbors and fellow church members regard him as a saint, he is not convinced he should accept the Reverend Emmett’s offer to become the church’s associate minister. His focus is still his own redemption, which he believes can be accomplished if he successfully raises Agatha, Thomas, and Daphne. In contrast, the Reverend Emmett insists the task that has become his lifelong burden can actually be lifted only when Ian can forgive Danny and Lucy.
Gradually Ian realizes that he cannot force any of the children to accept his religious views. Even before she leaves home, Agatha refuses to attend church, and eventually she and Thomas move away, though they return for holidays. Daphne continues to live at home and attend church, but Ian’s attempts to influence her behavior are also unsuccessful; she has a hidden, rebellious side to her life. More than the older children, though, Daphne is concerned that Ian may be lonely. Several times she enlists her siblings in plots to develop a romance between Ian and various teachers or young women at church, but he ignores all such efforts. After Bee’s death, however, Agatha insists that Doug and Ian need help in clearing out the house, so she hires Rita de Carlo, the Clutter Counselor. To everyone’s surprise, Rita pursues Ian, even ordering a handmade chest so that she will have the occasion to see him again. Still more surprising is the fact Ian is drawn to Rita, no doubt in part because she routinely discards papers and souvenirs, separating herself and her clients from their pasts. He says, however, that he feels safe with her primarily because, unlike other women he has dated, she seems to be “someone who couldn’t be harmed.”
When they marry, Ian is forty-two and Rita is thirty, so fatherhood is not part of Ian’s plan, but during a Sunday morning service, Rita tells him she thinks she is pregnant and that she intends to be happy about that fact. Although initially startled, Ian becomes increasingly enthusiastic about the impending birth. For their son, he builds a cradle, his first work with curved lines that “required eye judgment and personal opinion.” Like marriage and fatherhood, this choice reflects his willingness to let go of the past with all its associations of guilt. When he presents his son Joshua to the family, Ian has finally forgiven himself and become focused on the future.
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