Author: Marilynne Robinson
Description: Robinson is an acclaimed author and Pulitzer prize-winner, though her fiction comes slowly. As far as I know, she has written only three novels: Housekeeping, Gilead, and Home. Unlike seemingly everyone else in the universe, I was not wowed by the first two. Home is set in the same town as Gilead, with basically the same set of characters. While Gilead focused on John Ames and his young son, Home centers around another father and son, Ames’ best friend Robert Boughton (yet another preacher) and his black sheep son, Jack. Mostly seen from the point of view of Glory, Boughton’s daughter, Home tells the story of the desperate love the father has for the son—and the son for the father.
Plot: Robinson’s style is never plot-heavy, though this book has about as much plot as any of her books. Jack returns home after a decades-long absence, and much of the plot deals with what has been going on in his life during his time away from Gilead.
Characters: In the same way that plot isn’t that important here, the characters are all-important, and Robinson is brilliant as she first sketches, then colors, then details them. By the end of the novel, the reader feels almost a part of this family—at least I did. Robinson has the knack of making characters vivid without using caricature or overstatement, and they each possess the flaws and virtues that give them real life.
Writing style: Gilead is a small country town in Iowa, and the book is set in the 1950’s. The writing takes on that pace, then; in the country nothing really hurries and there is a lot of time to think about life in general. If there is a flaw in the book, it is in the understatement; there were times when one of the characters would imply something from someone’s actions or words that I would never have picked up on. I don’t know if that’s just me being obtuse, or if her characters are just masters of subtlety.
Audience: This is literary fiction. Although it has a mainstream publisher, the book would appeal to Christian readers, especially those who give the cold shoulder to Christian genre writing. Robinson tackles big themes without sugarcoating or simplifying.
Wrap-up: I grew up as a preacher’s kid in a small rural town in the Midwest, so maybe this book had more resonance for me than it would for some others, but I found nearly every page a wonder. What bothered me in the past about Robinson’s writing (her pacing, the lack of plot) doesn’t become an issue in this book; there is enough plot to keep me interested, and rather than being impatient at the glacial pace, I was able to read slowly and puzzle over some of the questions the characters were dealing with. This is my first 5/5* book of 2012!