In Anne Tyler’s Baltimore, the Homesick Restaurant stays open on holidays so that people without families or the emotional wherewithal to get a meal on the table will have someplace to go. Here, a few months after Grandma Bee Bedloe’s death, the Bedloe family gathers for an unexpectedly pleasant Christmas dinner hosted by Ezra, the restaurant’s owner. Long before this dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, however, the reader of St. Maybe, Tyler’s twelfth novel, has been traveling in familiar familial territory. The Bedloes begin the novel as an “ideal, apple-pie household” with “two amiable parents, three good-looking children, a dog, a cat, a scattering of goldfish”; their youngest child, Ian, is seventeen. By the end of the novel, Ian is forty-two, and the Bedloes have been transformed by their “extraordinary troubles” from a “special” family into an “ordinary” one. An ordinary family with extraordinary troubles—this is Anne Tyler’s great subject, and in St. Maybe she handles it with assurance and with the rich blend of humor, offhandedness, and profundity that has won her so many devoted readers.
The story opens with the marriage of the Bedloes’ oldest son, Danny, to Lucy Dean, a woman he has met only three weeks before. Lucy has two young children from a previous marriage; seven months after marrying Danny, she gives birth to a third child. By the end of the novel’s opening chapter, Danny has died in a car crash; within six months, Lucy is also dead, leaving the three children to be reared by the surviving Bedloes. Stricken not only with the loss of Danny and Lucy but also with the certainty that he is directly responsible for his older brother’s death and indirectly responsible for that of his sister-in-law, Ian Bedloe decides to quit college to help his parents, Doug and Bee, take care of the orphans, who have no other relatives.
Ian’s motives for taking this remarkable step are complex, and Tyler presents them convincingly and with considerable psychological subtlety. A major element in Ian’s motivation is his guilt about his own sexuality. In his last year of high school, when the story begins, Ian is eager to sleep with his girlfriend, and he also finds himself uncomfortably attracted to his sister-in-law. Viewing Lucy’s behavior through the distorting lens of his own desire, Ian begins to suspect that she is being unfaithful to Danny. The drunken car crash in which Danny dies occurs just after Ian has told Danny of his suspicions, so Ian believes that he has caused Danny to commit suicide. When Lucy dies six months later of an overdose, perhaps accidental and perhaps not, Ian learns that what he has told Danny about Lucy was not true. Desperate not only for forgiveness but also for some punishment that might ease his “racking anguish over something impulsively done that could not be undone,” Ian is drawn one evening to a religious service in a storefront called the Church of the Second Chance. Here he learns that complete forgiveness is available but must be earned: He must care for the children that Danny and Lucy have left behind.
Thus family feeling, always central in Tyler’s work, is treated in St. Maybe both as “a matter of blind circumstance” and as a religious discipline. Completely separated in Ian’s experience from sexual passion, from gender socialization, and from blood kinship, parenthood becomes for him a vocation. Undoing his sin by taking responsibility for seven-year-old Agatha, four-year-old Thomas, and ten-month-old Daphne becomes the purpose of Ian’s life. He finds a job as a carpenter, develops a personal view of Jesus, and becomes a committed participant, with the children, in all the activities of the Church of the Second Chance: regular worship, public amending, good works, Bible camp. Determined to earn forgiveness, to become good again by working at it, Ian follows his church’s prohibitions against consuming sugar, coffee, and alcohol and having sex outside marriage. His parents, Doug and Bee, view his religious commitment with embarrassment, and his girlfriend starts calling him “Mr. Holiness” and gradually drifts away. Nevertheless, Ian holds fast to his faith in the promise of forgiveness, and, ambiguously motivated though his sainthood may be, eventually receives his reward, embodied in Rita di Carlo, the Clutter Counselor.
Tyler portrays religion as offering infrequent moments of transcendence—for example, Ian prays by “picturing…this spinning green planet safe in the hands of God, with the children and his parents and Ian himself small trusting dots among all the other dots”—but the emphasis in St. Maybe is not on ecstatic experience. Rather, Tyler’s view of religion parallels her view of parenthood:...
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