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Book Review: Abide with Me

By (March 27, 2013) No Comment

Abide with MeSabin_Willett_ABIDE_WITH_ME_cover_art

by Sabin Willett

Simon & Schuster, 2013

 

Sabin Willett runs a significant risk in his latest novel Abide with Me, which is the story of a brooding poor boy from Hoosick Bridge, Vermont, who falls in love with a daughter of the town’s richest family, goes off to war in Afghanistan, and comes back to find her married to a milquetoast; the risk is that such a novel will brand Willett “the next Nicholas Sparks.” For any writer with a grain of self-respect, this is a dire risk: it’s the threat of becoming synonymous with pan-shallow manipulative treacle of no literary merit whatsoever.

But it’s a two-edged risk, because, alas, it’s also synonymous with a multi-million dollar bank account and phone calls at home from Ryan Gosling. Novelists are typically wretched little needers, so the allure is clear enough. Stronger men than Willett have been tempted to pack up their integrity and, like Holden Caufield’s brother, go be a prostitute in Hollywood.

It doesn’t help that Abide with Me makes some faint gestures at being an homage to Wuthering Heights (the rich girl’s gorgeous family home is called the Heights, and there’s trouble with a fire in both books). Roy Murphy is from the wrong part of tiny Hoosick Bridge, the Park, where “the talk was coarse, where the tables were littered with Doritos bags and beer cans, where you never saw even a single book or a shelf to hold one.” Emma Herrick is the beautiful daughter of the town’s founding family, owners of the Heights. They feel a helpless passion for each other. The raw recitation of it certainly makes it sound pat, trite … Sparksian.

There’s much, much more to Abide with Me, and it’s a reviewer’s despair to think how many readers will never know that because the raw recitation (and the book’s jacket-blurb from Garth Stein, the perpetrator of The Art of Racing in the Rain, a book so lethally, overwhelmingly saccharine it ought to come with a warning label from the FDA) makes them think of Zac Efron emoting in the rain and turns them away. Willett is the master of a very strong prose style, and although there’s plenty of sentiment in Abide with Me, there’s no syrup. It’s a carefully chiselled story, full of precisely-realized characters – including Emma herself, that thankless role, made by Willett into a thoroughly believable bundle of contradictions:

“You’re the Park, I’m the town. Except for one summer after the seventh grade. In a few weeks, you’ll have one future, I’ll have another future, and those two worlds are like, like Jupiter and Saturn. You’re going over – somewhere – to get shot at, for what reason I do not even know, you do not even know. And I’m going to Yale … For what reason I do not really know either.”

The self-defensive stiffness of those ‘do not’s is perfectly chosen (as is the fact that even in the agony of her outburst, she can’t help sticking it to Roy just a bit with that ‘you do not even know’ – Emma has the sharp mind and the sharp tongue of her patrician upbringing, qualities we see in full bloom in Willett’s magnificently terrifying portrait of her mother), and not every writer’s ear would be sensitive enough to it. Throughout Abide with Me, a high importance is placed on the sound and power of language – it’s a quality that’s always been present in Willett’s novels, but it reaches a new refinement here.

Our author is a working lawyer who’s had the thankless job of defending ‘detainees’ at Guantanamo, and as a probably-inevitable result, there are a few too many bitter editorial asides scattered throughout the novel, things like this:

And now, they found that geopolitics was not just something you could outsource, someone you could hire and export to a distant place no one could find on a map. Geopolitics would come home, to the tent in your backyard. To your engagement party.

But such chastisements are an easy price to pay for the novel’s surprising strongest point: the glimpses we get into Roy’s experiences in Afghanistan are vividly immediate, and his halting attempts to explain to Emma his silence while away have a ring of authenticity:

You’re in Afghanistan, you have to be all there, you know? You got to pay all the attention you have. One little kid in a market with a look on his face that isn’t right, one little flash of light on the hill across the valley, you won’t never see it if you don’t pay attention. A guy has some of his attention on whether a girl in some other world is still his girl, and bad things happen in the world he’s in.

(A small mystery surrounds the circumstances of Roy’s discharge, and thanks to Willett’s personal experience, the scenes between Roy and the military’s lawyers are also superbly done)

None of which is to say Abide with Me might not get scooped up by some movie producer and turned into a 90-minute abomination of soft focus starring Robert Pattinson with a soundtrack cut from Imagine Dragons. It could happen, and Sabin Willett’s bank account would change accordingly. But for those who care about such things, it’s important to note that it didn’t start out that way; it started out as a damn fine novel.