There is a special category of movie in India, called "Family Film": these deal entirely with matters inside a big "joint" family (where all the siblings live together with their parents in their ancestral home, either matrilineal or patrilineal). In the first quarter of the movie, something will happen to disturb the tranqulity of its existence, and the whole of the remaining is spent in resolving the issue. The movie typically has a tragicomic ending, and leaves the audience with a gooey sentimental feeling inside (precisely for which they have come, anyway). It is something the grandparents can watch with grandchildren, passing the popcorn and soft drinks across the seats.Saint Maybe
by Anne Tyler is such a "Family Film". The novel chronicles the life and times of the Bedloe family, after unexpected tragedy strikes them in the late sixties in the form of the "accidental" death of one of the sons, Danny. However, the tragedy is even more serious for Ian, his younger brother, because he knows that he has unwittingly caused his brother's death through some harsh words uttered in the heat of the moment.
The Bedloes are a picture-perfect family right out of a sitcom: they are always a "family" (as if the individual members didn't matter) and nothing "wrong" ever happens for them. Even when Danny marries Lucy Dean, a divorcee with two children, it is accepted after the initial shock. However, Ian begins to have serious doubts about his sister-in-law's character: he comes to the conclusion that she is sleeping around, her gentlemen friends are keeping her in riches and that his brother is nothing but a fall guy: worse, he is pretty sure that Lucy’s third child, Daphne, is not his brother’s. Things come to a head when Ian is kept away from a date with his girlfriend by being forced to babysit the kids while his brother is attending a stag party, and Lucy is ostensibly having dinner with a girlfriend (but Ian is sure she’s elsewhere). As Danny comes back late, Ian blurts out the unwelcome truth: Danny retaliates by driving his car into a wall and killing himself. Soon, Lucy dies from an overdose of sleeping pills.
Two deaths on his conscience, Ian’s world starts to fall apart. Plagued by guilt, he finds succour in an unlikely place: “The Church of Second Chance”, run by the maverick Reverend Bennett. He gives Ian a way out of his guilt: atonement, the hard way. He has committed a wrong, so he must do whatever it takes to set it right: which in Ian’s case means foregoing a college education, forgetting his sweetheart, and taking charge of his sister-in-law’s three children. Ian spends the rest of the atoning, even when the people around him lose conviction and faith, including the beneficiaries of his penance; but he does not find peace. Until one day, the truth is brought home to him by Daphne, Danny’s daughter:”You think I don’t know what I am up to, don’t you,” Daphne said.
“You think I’m some ninny who wants do right but keeps goofing. But what you don’t see is, I goof on purpose. I’m not like you: King Careful. Mr. Look-Both-Ways. Saint Maybe.”
“Mess up, I say!” Daphne crowed. “Fall flat on your face! Make every mistake you can think of! Use all the life you’ve got!”
Ironically, Ian finds peace when he stops looking for it.
Novels about people trying to atone for that one mistake is common in literature: Lord Jim
is perhaps the most famous example: Atonement
is a recent one. What makes Ian’s story different from these is that it is not a tragedy. There is nothing grandiose about it: it’s just a piece of life. We get a feeling that, even if Ian had not done his penance, nothing much would have changed: life would have gone on, just the same. It is this realisation (“People changed other people’s lives every day of the year. There was no call to make such a fuss about it.”) that is Ian’s true salvation.
Anne Tyler writes well. There is a carefree, no-nonsense quality to her prose, even while describing tragic events, that get to you - there is no heavy-handedness. The structure of the novel, with almost each chapter shifting in POV, prevents it from being too focussed on Ian and helps highlight the fact that it is the story of a family which is being narrated, rather than that of a person. And the constantly changing Middle-Eastern students in the house next door (“the foreigners”) and their perennial craze with electronic gadgetry provides an effective counterpoint to the Bedloe’s unchanging stolidity. The novel literally flows.
However, after reading Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant
and this novel, I am starting to get a sneaking suspicion that Ms. Tyler’s subject and style can stale very fast. What is aimed at seems to be a “feel-good” story with some family values (like the films I mentioned at the beginning) rather any exploration in depth of the characters’ motives. There is nothing wrong in that: this is a well-written novel and a fast read. But I doubt whether it will stay in the mind for any length of time.