Saturday, April 18, 2009

HOME by Marilynne Robinson

I confess: I did not especially enjoy Gilead, Marilynne Robinson's Pulitzer Prize-winning 2004 novel about the Ames and Boughton families. Maybe the build-up was too great: some of my friends thought it was life-changing, the best novel they'd ever read. I thought it dragged. I kept waiting for something to happen. And by the time it did, I had lost interest, though (because I was reading it for a book group) I plowed on to the very end.

So when, out of a sense of duty to Literature, I checked out Home, I waited until it was almost due to begin reading. And then, much to my surprise, I got hooked.

Both novels are set in the fictional small town of Gilead, Iowa, in the mid 1950s. Gilead's narrator is the Reverend John Ames, a semi-retired Congregational minister; Home's narrator is Glory Boughton, the youngest child of the Reverend Robert Boughton, a retired Presbyterian minister and Ames's best friend. Both books focus on Jack Boughton, Robert's ne'er-do-well son, though Gilead takes care of a lot of Ames family business before finally getting around to Jack.

I liked Home because in some ways it reminded me of my parents' home: Like Rev. Boughton, my father was a dignified, kindly, and reasonable man who spoke in stately cadences and shared Boughton's moderate--but oh, so wrong--views on the nascent civil rights movement. My home, like the Boughton household, was a
scene of utter and endless probity, where earnest striving so predictably yielded success, … the kind amenable to being half-concealed by the rigors of yet more earnest striving.
Like Jack, I broke my father's heart. Like Jack's father, my dad struggled to be gracious while disapproving of my religious choices. Like Glory, I dutifully cared for my parents in their final illness; like Glory, I dreamed of escape.

I'm not trying to turn this review into a memoir; I'm just warning you that if you didn't care for Gilead and don't have a history something like Jack's or Glory's or mine, you may not like Home either. On the other hand, there are many good non-biographical reasons to like this book. Robinson's writing style is wonderful: spare, never fussy or pretentious, never calling attention to itself; but sharp-eyed, deeply aware of human foibles, often wryly humorous. Her characters, no matter how flawed, are sympathetic. These are people we know and love.

Here is Glory describing her behavior toward her wayward brother:
Dear Lord. She had tried to take care of him, to help him, and from time to time he had let her believe she did. That old habit of hers, of making a kind of happiness for herself out of the thought that she could be his rescuer, when there was seldom much reason to believe that rescue would have any particular attraction for him.
Indeed Jack does not want to be rescued, at least not on the terms the good citizens of Gilead would prefer--or if, on some level, he does wish to come home (he often plays "Softly and Tenderly" on the piano), he believes he is unable to do so.

If you decide to read this book and are not immediately smitten, keep going for at least 30 pages; 50 or 80 would be better. The book starts slowly, and there's a lot of rumination where I wouldn't have minded some action (I am so shallow). Eventually you'll find yourself in the kitchen or the back garden with Glory and Jack, absorbed in their conversations, involved with the two old gentlemen, wondering what Jack will do next.

And then, if you happen to be reading this with a friend or for a book club, you can talk about any of the book's big ideas: Grace. Depravity. Predestination. Forgiveness. And, especially, Home.


  1. Carmen and I discovered Housekeeping years ago, quite by accident, and loved it. (A pretty good movie made of it, too, though rarely seen anymore.) I have Gilead on my nightstand. Most of my friends loved it. Which (and this tells much about my contrary nature) makes me want to be critical of it. We'll see.

  2. Glad someone enjoyed Home. I found it tedious, while, as you said about Gilead, waiting endlessly for something to happen. Lots of angst about nearly everything. Oh well, to each her own...