Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler (1991)

This year I’ve been joining in Liz’s Anne Tyler readalong for the novels I own and hadn’t read yet – I have one each lined up for the next three months as well. Saint Maybe was Tyler’s twelfth novel and forms part of what I consider to be her golden mid-period. It’s most like Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, my absolute favourite, in that both might be classed as linked short story collections: each chapter is a standalone narrative with knockout first and last lines; together they build a careful picture of a dysfunctional family over the years.

As the novel opens in the 1960s, Ian Bedloe is a lazy teenager contemplating college. When his older brother Danny marries Lucy, mother to Agatha and Thomas, Ian can’t help but comment on the timing of his sister-in-law’s third pregnancy. Danny didn’t realize he’s not the father of this new baby, Daphne, and the newfound knowledge pushes him over the edge. Lucy also fails to cope, and Ian is consumed with guilt at how he inadvertently caused the collapse of their family. In an effort to atone, he joins the puritanical Church of the Second Chance and drops out of college to help his parents raise the three children. Others have to convince him that life is not just about penance and that he deserves happiness, too.

This is one of those books where every character, no matter how minor, shines. I particularly loved Reverend Emmett, whose well-meaning doctrines have been taken further than he intended; Rita, whom the family hires to declutter the house (she’s reminiscent of the dog trainer in The Accidental Tourist); and Daphne, who turns into a rebellious teen for whom Ian will always have a soft spot. Ian’s parents could have faded into the background, but the book probes their grief and their feelings of purposelessness in retirement. My only slight qualm was about how Tyler describes the foreigners who live nearby: Middle Eastern graduate students at Johns Hopkins, they’re there simply to provide comic relief with their harebrained home maintenance schemes; the depiction is good-natured, yet seems dated.

In a few other Tyler novels, I’ve been put off by what can seem like flippancy or inconsequentiality. The works of hers that I love best emphasize both the humour and the sadness: the absurdity and tragedy of these ordinary suburban lives. Here, I especially noted the double-edged portrait of the nature of childcare: Ian “wondered how people endured children on a long-term basis—the monotony and irritation and confinement of them,” yet “They were all that gave his life color, and energy, and …well, life.” I also kept finding personal resonances – for instance, the whole theme of the short homily the pastor delivered at my mother’s wedding ceremony was second chances, my stepfather has a failing old dog like the Bedloes’ Beastie, and the account of Church summer camp rang all too true.

At the sentence level as well as the plot level, this is a very strong showing from Tyler, and a close second to Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant for me. I reckon anyone will be able to find themselves and their family in this story of the life chosen versus the life fallen into, and the difficult necessity of moving past regrets in the search for meaning. (Source: Charity shop) See also Liz’s review.

Favourite lines:

Bee (Ian’s mother): “We’ve had such extraordinary troubles, and somehow they’ve turned us ordinary. That’s what’s so hard to figure. We’re not a special family anymore. … We’ve turned uncertain. We’ve turned into worriers.”

“‘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.’”

“When is something philosophical acceptance and when is it dumb passivity? When is something a moral decision and when is it scar tissue?”

My rating:


The 14 Tyler novels I’ve read, in order of preference (greatest to least), are:

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant

Saint Maybe

Ladder of Years

The Accidental Tourist

Earthly Possessions

Breathing Lessons

Digging to America

Vinegar Girl

Back When We Were Grown-ups

Clock Dance

A Blue Spool of Thread

The Beginner’s Goodbye

Redhead by the Side of the Road

The Clock Winder


Next up for me will be A Patchwork Planet in late July.


27 responses

  1. A great review, and thank you for the links to my project. I didn’t really know what to say about the “Middle Eastern” house; it’s lovely when Ian’s dad sort of adopts them and they are resourceful but also a bit dated, as you say. I like Rita a LOT more than the dog trainer – because she’s one of the careful ones, not one of the careless ones, it feels (I’m definitely on Team Careful with AT!). I’m so glad you’ve taken part with this one; it is a favourite of the mid-period ones for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Knowing that Tyler’s own husband was from that community, I’m sure the portrayal was meant as loving, and I did find it amusing, but I don’t think it would have made it into a novel published today.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t think I’ve read this one as I’d remember that Church, but it’s one I’d like to read.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My mother doesn’t care for Tyler in general, but read this one for a book club and loved it.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. I’m about two-thirds of the way through this one and am enjoying it very much.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s great to hear — it was a real standout for me.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Wow, it made it to the top of the list…that’s awesome! (Homesick is top. It has to be top. So now Maybe is the top of the only other kind of top there can be, with Homesick part of the list.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Nearly to the top! It would take a lot to topple a favourite off the pedestal.


  5. carolyn anthony | Reply

    I read Saint Maybe for Book Club ages ago. The part I remember most vividly is the brother driving smack dab into a concrete wall.

    Sent from my iPhone


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, that first chapter sure ends with a bang! I remember that you hadn’t liked the other couple of Tyler novels you tried, but enjoyed this one. I especially appreciated the church setting and the question of what makes a good person. ________________________________


  6. This was a very good outing for Anne Tyler. I still have a few yet to read (mostly newer ones) but I agree, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is fantastic. My favorite is Digging to America but I think that’s mostly because of my half-Persian heritage.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I enjoyed that one for being a bit different from the rest of hers. Adoption is a subject I like to read about. I just reminded myself that Tyler’s husband was Iranian.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. I remember finding that one very interesting and am looking forward to revisiting it.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. A great review! I loved it! Thanks for sharing😀📚

    Liked by 1 person

  8. The case for getting hold of a copy of Saint Maybe is building. Oddly enough, I just had a discussion with my daughter about taking on your brother’s/sister’s/child’s children if something happens to them and/or they simply want you to commit yourself to childcare. I definitely fall into the reluctant camp until persuaded otherwise by actual circumstance. Keeping my fingers crossed it doesn’t arise.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m interested in those kinds of unusual pseudo-adoption situations.


      1. My daughter pointed out the ability to easily have your DNA tested is leading to many people discovering their parents aren’t who they thought they were within families, e.g. being brought up by your grandparents as your parents when a teenager falls pregnant or discovering your biological father is actually your uncle. That must be quite a shock. But There must have been many more pseudo-adoptions following wars. I know it happened in my in-law’s family with both a child born out of wedlock (father known but already married so kept secret) combined with a blended family after a sister died leaving orphaned children, though that history was openly talked about. It makes for quite a complicated family tree.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. I think the only one I have ever read is Ladder of Years. But it was so long ago, I can’t remember it at all! I’m looking forward to reading The Amateur Marriage for Literary Wives – I saw that you brought that one back with you from the US!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ladder of Years is a great one. Yes! I found a couple more of hers that I had in boxes, so I have that one lined up for August.

      Liked by 2 people

  10. I’m definitely going to have to get on this one!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your taste in Tylers may end up differing from mine, but I’d say you can’t go wrong with any of my top 6.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. […] Re-Read Project and Saint Maybe has also been reviewed this month by at Liz and by Rebecca at Bookish Beck. I hope to take part again with The Accidental Tourist, although, I missed reading it when it was […]


  12. […] of the novels I own and hadn’t read yet. Just this summer, I’ve discovered two new favourites: Saint Maybe and now The Amateur Marriage – which surprised me because it was her sixteenth novel and not part […]


  13. […] I own and hadn’t read yet. I’ve discovered a few terrific new-to-me ones: Earthly Possessions, Saint Maybe, The Amateur Marriage … but there have also been some slight duds. Alas, this one falls into the […]


  14. […] Saint Maybe by Anne Tyler: Ian Bedloe joins the puritanical Church of the Second Chance and drops out of college to help his parents raise his late brother’s three children. Anyone will be able to find themselves and their family in this story of the life chosen versus the life fallen into, and the difficult necessity of moving past regrets in the search for meaning. […]


  15. When I discovered this novel, it was by chance and I kept putting it aside because I was young. Once I made it through the initial chapter, it took off on a theme that I could relate to. Although the Church of Second Chance seemed extreme, I think it’s a theme anyone who struggles with guilt, forgiveness and atonement can relate to. I found the characters enduring. Although the foreigners were written in a dated way, I think for the times the novel was set in that perhaps they were the most important because although they had seemingly mishaps, I don’t believe they were just people to amuse Doug Bedloe. I believe they showed that life is full of silly gadgets in America, laughter pulled them through their college time so they could go back to their homelands and become who they needed to be. They also showed the importance of change, embracing their mistakes and moving on. Ian ultimately sacrificed college to try to atone for his guilt but he sure seemed to have sacrificed a lot to finally find happiness. Even the neighbor that at first seems almost intrusive in the Bedloes lives was willing to go on the picnic with the church whereas Bea was the one who seemingly became less likable.
    Each time I’ve read it though, I’m at a different point in my life but it has remained one of my favorite novels since 1999. This is a great post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting! This was a great one from Tyler that deserves to be better known.

      Liked by 1 person

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