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Bar News - January 15, 2014

Book Review: Abide with Me (a novel) by Sabin Willett


Simon & Schuster (2013)

Cross an old-school romance with a polemic on the US presence in Afghanistan and you begin to describe Sabin Willett’s Abide with Me. More than the all-consuming love at its core, Massachusetts attorney Willett’s entertaining fourth novel is a thoroughly 21st century novel of a warrior and the world he left behind.

Drawing on the stories of soldiers he met while serving as counsel for Guantanamo Bay detainees, Willett creates an authentic portrait of a young vet and the adjustment of returning to civilian life. From an all-too-real outpost on a barren Afghan ridge to the gossip at Toni’s Lunch in the fictional town of Hoosick Bridge, Vt., Willett brings to life a classic poor boy/rich girl tale. In the summer of 2004, between high school graduation and Yale, luminous, well-behaved Emma Herrick – to the dismay of her investment banker father Tom and class-conscious mother Jane – falls for brooding Roy Murphy. A first family of Hoosick Bridge, the Herricks reside at “the Heights,” the finest and grandest home overlooking the town.

The last of three sons raised by a single mother in “the Park” – the trailer park on the wrong side of Vermont Route 7 – Roy arrives late to the prom, fresh from a stint in juvenile detention, wrests Emma from the arm of her date and then the dance itself. The next morning, they’re on an Atlantic beach watching the sunrise. An urgent passion rules virtually every waking hour, until the August day when she drops Roy off at the bus that will take him to boot camp.

Their bond endures complete separation for nearly five years – his duty in Afghanistan, her Yale years, and the start of a career on Wall Street – retaining a powerful hold on both of their lives, until the story’s end. In a video on publisher Simon and Schuster’s website, Willett describes how he wanted to write an “old-fashioned” love story, with lovers “urgently drawn to each other in a way that makes no sense.”

As skillfully as Abide with Me charts the urgency of Emma’s and Roy’s passionate summer, and as nuanced as its depiction of the impact of serving in America’s longest war on its young veterans, the novel provides precious little insight into what makes Roy Murphy tick. Back from Afghanistan early, discharged for stonewalling the investigation of the murder of a village elder, Roy sets about building a successful landscaping business. Not once had he contacted Emma during his five years in the army, and he never communicates his true feelings thereafter. What drives Roy – love, anger, revenge, PTSD – remains unclear.

In a crucial plot development, Roy’s business acumen and Herrick family misfortune position the former delinquent to purchase “the Heights.” One hold-up at the closing: the enfeebled Jane Herrick refuses to quit the family home. Notwithstanding the pitfalls of such a course, Roy goes through with the sale, even allowing Jane to continue living in the house after he moves in. Emma’s efforts to convince her mother to move out result neither in the removal of Jane nor in a re-ignition of her love for Roy. Jane’s failing faculties spark a tragic conclusion.

At heart a story of love lost, Abide with Me resonates with disturbing truths about the costs of the war in Afghanistan. The novel lays bare the divide between the warrior class and the rest of us and the losses with which so many returning soldiers must cope.

John W. Vorder Bruegge

Admitted to the New Hampshire Bar in 1993, John W. Vorder Bruegge teaches English, social studies, and music at the Community High School of Vermont in Springfield.

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