by Marilynne Robinson (2008)
Picador (2009)
336 pp

Though Robinson has written only three novels, she is considered by many to be among the top American writers. I agree. My own experience with her three novels has deepened my thoughts and solidified my admiration for her. To me, Gilead is one of the best American novels of all time. It speaks of America’s young past in language that reminds one of the very past it is speaking of. It is crisp and clear yet intricate and syntactically complex. When reading it, we hear not just the Bible but also Melville, Emerson and Theroux. Because Gilead was so perfect to me, I have put off for a long time reading Robinson’s follow-up Home.

It isn’t just because Home was Robinson’s next book that made me wary. It is because Home is a sort of retelling of the events we read about in Gilead. Gilead was a first-person letter / journal written by the Reverend John Ames, the leader of the Congregationalist flock in Gilead, Iowa. Ames is seventy-seven years old, but in his old age he has borne a son with a much younger wife. He knows he won’t be with them for most of their lives. Gilead is Ames’s extended letter to his young son, written over a period of several months so it almost becomes a type of journal in which, while attempting to convey wisdom to his young son, Ames explores himself, eventually coming to a major thorn in his side. During those months, Jack Boughton returns home to Gilead after being absent for twenty years. Jack, whose real name is John Ames Boughton, is the son of Ames’s best friend, the Presbyterian minister, Old Robert Boughton. Jack was an unending source of pain to both Old Boughton and Ames; indeed, he was a source of pain to everyone involved, his siblings not excepted.

Sometimes they made their father promise not to tell anyone, by which he knew they meant Reverend Ames, since he was far too discreet to repeat any confidence, except in the confessional of Ames’s stark bachelor kitchen, where, they suspected, such considerations were forgotten. And what was their father not to tell? How they informed on Jack, telling him what Jack had said, what Jack had done or seemed inclined to do.

“I have to know,” their father said. “For his sake.” So they told on their poor scoundrel brother, who knew it, and was irritated or darkly amused, and who kept them informed or misinformed and inspired urgent suspicions among them which they felt they had to pass on, whatever their misgivings, to spare their father having to deal with the sheriff again.

Jack eventually left Gilead after impregnating a young girl, only now to return inexplicably. The last parts in Gilead — after Ames has expressed such deep love of the individual, particularly of his young son, who, he says, he will love unconditionally — show Ames struggling to tolerate the very presence of Jack, let alone to forgive him and love him.

Home takes us to those same months but in the Boughton homestead instead of Ames’s study. Unlike Gilead, Home is a third-person narrative, closely tracking the mind and actions of Glory Boughton, Old Boughton’s youngest daughter. At the beginning of the book she has returned home after her own painful disillusionment — her fiancé of several years is actually a married man. She feels she should have known, if she had wanted to. Now, feeling like she’s regressed to being a child again, Glory takes care of her father as he slowly but surely creeps closer to senility and to the grave. “At this time she could decide nothing about her life. She did not want to think about her life.” Their quiet reverence is disrupted when Old Boughton gets a letter from Jack saying he’s coming home, after twenty years of almost no contact. Old Boughton gets a burst of nervous energy. He thanks God for this blessing and cannot wait to see his lost son. Glory realizes that she was just a young girl when Jack left Gilead; she hardly knows him, though as a young child she always wanted his affection. When Jack comes home, it is uncertain whether he has changed or not. It is also uncertain why he has returned home, though we get the sense that his return was the result of pain and loss, as Glory’s was.

As I read the first one hundred pages or so, I couldn’t let go of the fact that I was not reading Gilead, that Home didn’t match Gilead for its linguistic purity. Also, I loved reading John Ames’s elusively simple writing. The third person narrator doesn’t allow for that same intimacy. I was becoming sadly resigned to the fact that Home, while obviously excellent, would be a disappointment.

But some transformation occurred near the halfway point. Everything in the first 150 pages became deep and Robinson’s layered story took on a life of its own. I looked forward to seeing John Ames, but I didn’t need him in order for me to experience the bubbling life going on under the words. Despite the joy Old Boughton feels at his son’s return home, this is not a simple retelling of the Prodigal Son. Old Boughton can’t help but bring up old grievances. He seems to have forgiven his son, but he can’t help but be amazed at all he’s been through because of Jack.

“And then you really were gone, weren’t you. Twenty years, Jack!”

Jack drew a deep breath and said nothing.

“And why am I talking to you about this? But it was always a mystery to me. Be strict! People would say to me. Lay down the law! Do it for his sake! But I always felt it was sadness I was dealing with, a sort of heavy heartedness. In a child! And how could you be angry at that? I should have known how to help you with it.”

In many aspects Home has a polite, respectful surface. The characters have been brought up to be controlled and to worry more about others’ feelings than their own despair. Or, as we see above, at least cast their grievances as personal failings or incomprehensible aspects of human nature. But the dialogue is taut with distrust, or with moments meant to be light but that remind everyone of the past:

Teddy went to his brother and took Jack’s hand in both his hands and held it. “So it’s true. You’re really here. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. I’ve hardly been able to believe it.”

Jack laughed. “I could show you the wound in my side if you like.” Then, “Sorry.” And his head fell, and it was real regret. He was so tired of being himself.

The last half of the book is exceptional. Old Boughton becomes increasingly tyrannical, unrelentingly reminding Jack of just how hard he makes everyone’s lives. Sure, the dying man apologizes, almost immediately, but the intensity behind each attack builds until there are few moments of peace.

“Yes, well, maybe it’s a joke, I don’t know. Last night was about as bad a night as I have passed on this earth. And I kept thinking to myself, asking the Lord, Why do I have to care so much? It seemed like a curse and an affliction to me. To love my own son. How could that be? I have wondered about it many times.”

Beneath this story of human relationships is also a deeply touching, troubling look at human relationships to place, particularly home. I was awed by Robinson’s ability to maintain such a delicate balance between several interrelated elements, and always in that delicate language. The following lengthy passage comes late in the book after a particularly sad night.

And here is the world, she thought, just as we left it. A hot white sky and a soft wind, a murmur among the trees, the treble rasp of a few cicadas. There were acorns in the road, some of them broken by passing cars. Chrysanthemums were coming into bloom. Yellowing squash vines swamped the vegetable gardens and tomato plants hung from their stakes, depleted with bearing. Another summer in Gilead. Gilead, dreaming out its curse of sameness, somnolence. How could anyone want to live here? That was the quesiton they asked one another, out of their father’s hearing, when they came back from college, or from the world. Why would anyone stay here?

In college all of them had studied the putative effects of deracination, which were angst and anomie, those dull horrors of the modern world. They had been examined on the subject, had rehearsed bleak and portentous philosophies in term papers, and they had done it with the earnest suspension of doubt that afflicts the highly educable. And then their return to the pays natal, where the same old willows swept the same ragged lawns, where the same old prairie arose and bloomed as negligence permitted. Home. What kinder place could there be on earth, and why did it seem to them all like exile? Oh, to be passing anonymously through an impersonal landscape! Oh, not to know every stump and stone, not to remember the fields of Queen Anne’s lace figured in the childish happiness they had offered to their father’s hopes, God bless him.

This took me back to the magical work of Willa Cather, and not just because of the repeated “Oh!”

I believe Gilead is still the better book, still the one people should read. But Home is the worthy successor. I highly recommend reading it second — I’m not sure I believe those who say you can read them in either order. I think the perspective gained in Gilead, the voice of John Ames, is important to the structure of Home. But, Home — this is a magical literary connection to America’s own past, her own home. Perhaps it’s not a home we want to go back to, but I think many of us feel that sense of angst and anomie.

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By |2016-06-10T16:53:12-04:00June 4th, 2010|Categories: Book Reviews, Marilynne Robinson|Tags: , |18 Comments


  1. Lee Monks June 4, 2010 at 4:36 am

    ‘This took me back to the magical work of Willa Cather, and not just because of the repeated “Oh!”’

    I’ve only just got hold of My Antonia after reading the first chapter and forgetting where I was whilst reading it, so luminous and, yes, magical was it. To be honest, it’s another I’m saving – I can’t bear to read it and yet can’t wait.

  2. Tony S. June 4, 2010 at 8:37 am

    I’m not a big fan of “Preacher’s family” books. Jack seemed awfully well-behaved to be a ‘prodigal son’, only in a preacher’s family. But ultimately “Home” wore me down and won me over. The more I think about it, the more I like it. It’s funny how an author so relentlessly square can be so popular.

  3. Tony S. June 4, 2010 at 9:08 am

    Compared to Marilynne Robinson, Willa Cather was an over-educated libertine.

  4. Trevor June 4, 2010 at 10:53 am

    Lee, I am anxious to get your thoughts on Cather. It’s been about a decade since I read her work, but it sticks. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything more peaceful yet vigorous. I also recommend her short story “Neighbor Rosicky.” It’s read a lot here in the States (used to be, anyway), but I’m not sure it gets read elsewhere.

    Interesting response to Home, Lee. I also am not much for Preachers’ family books — in fact, I’m not sure I’ve read many others. They never seem to get the people right. They are exaggerated as to their preachiness or their worldliness (according to James Wood). I tend to agree. But I think Robinson presents a credible cast. I also think she gets Jack and the family’s reactions to him down nicely. As for your comment on Robinson being square, I don’t think that comes across in her books. Honestly, I think she does as good a job as anyone in staying out of the narrative and letting the characters take over. Gilead‘s popularity is more surprising to me because the writing is somewhat archaic.

    I’m not sure just what you mean about Cather, though. I’d love to hear your ellaboration!

  5. Dwight June 4, 2010 at 12:14 pm

    I had a similar experience reading Home, succumbing to it about two-thirds of the way through. One of your quotes highlights some of my early resistance—the continual apologies. At some point I had to keep from saying “I get it, all right?” But Old Boughton finally won me over.

    I know these are minor points, but there were parallels with Gilead that helped bring the two together. The feeling of containment within a single room permeates both books, the kitchen here and Ames’ study (upstairs, then downstairs) in the previous book. There is a struggle with language in both books—Ames’ not sure what to tell his son or continually seeking to clarify a point, the continual apologies here since everything touches on past transgressions. Like I said, minor things but satisfying.

    What did you think of the ending? Part of me wishes she had skipped the meeting between Glory and Della, but I’m not sure it would have been better without it.

  6. Tony S. June 4, 2010 at 12:20 pm

    Yes, Marilynne Robinson does leave herself out of her books, but I get the sense her values coincide with Jack’s father’s, typical Iowa minister’s bedrock family values. I did read Gilead, but it had been awhile at the time I read Home, and I had forgotten what a source of pain Jack had been for the family then. Jack seemed pretty luke warm on the evil front in Home (he’s older), so I couldn’t see him so much as a prodigal son. If I had remembered Gilead better, I could have seen Jack more clearly as a prodigal son.
    Willa Cather is one of my favorite writers. I probably went overboard in my comparison of the two writers, especially given that Robinson has her Phd. Guess I need to stop thinking of Robinson as a religious goody two shoes.

  7. Trevor June 4, 2010 at 1:35 pm

    What did you think of the ending? Part of me wishes she had skipped the meeting between Glory and Della, but I’m not sure it would have been better without it.

    I see what you mean, Dwight. I normally wouldn’t go for such an ending, but in this case I couldn’t see another way to get in the fact that Jack had married a black woman and had a son. The third-person narrative is semi-close to Glory who had no idea. What Glory doesn’t know, the reader wouldn’t either. Not that we needed to if we’d read Gilead, where I thought the information came in a much more effective manner. But I also liked the ending because of what it made Glory think about: keeping Home the way it has always been. Through the book, I really enjoyed her struggles with her own return to Gilead and her home and with her fear of inheriting and therefore never leaving home. I liked how she and Jack discussed the possibility of selling or renovating, just to get that past out of there, just to give Glory a sense she’d moved on and wasn’t forced to guard the remains of a past for people who will only visit, if ever, once a year. But keeping it up for Jack or for his son means something different which Glory felt was worth the sacrifice. I like how the meeting with Della, though perhaps a bit unlikely, was important in bringing these other movements in the book to the end.

    Tony, I think it is perhaps important to see Jack first through the eyes of Reverend Ames, who is so kind and yet so bitter when it comes to Jack. He is certainly changed in the twenty year absence, but that absence persuaded his family that he was just as cruel and selfish as he once appeared to be. I differ from you in my impression of Robinson. Religious? Sure. But I think she speaks to other lost values more clearly. I also tended to feel she had more understanding of and empathy for Jack than she did for Old Boughton. Have you read Housekeeping? Perhaps it’s because I read that one first that I just don’t agree that she is a religious writer though she deals with religious themes, characters, and language. Thanks for your thoughts, Tony S.! I write all of this without any real ground under me, just wavy impressions.

  8. KevinfromCanada June 5, 2010 at 11:50 am

    I admit to continue being out of step on Home — I’m afraid the religious overlway meant I found it impossible to engage with any of the characters.

    I am wondering, Trevor, is this novel now ranks ahead of Netherland in your IMPAC listing?

  9. Trevor June 6, 2010 at 8:43 pm

    Hi Kevin. I’m still trying to figure out how much of my response to Home was because of Gilead. I think I’m separating the two in my mind and am juding Home on its own when I say that, yes, I think it is the better of Netherland. Of course, it has now been two years since I read Netherland. I wonder how it would sit now — better or worse than in 2008?

    I still think Gilead is the better of Home, and I even think it might be more essential to reading Home than some have said. Though Home stands alone, I think it is written in the shadow of Gilead and might be better with some of that lighting. I know you didn’t like Home, but I’d love to get your opinion on Gilead. I’m not sure you’d like it, but I kind of think you might.

  10. Max Cairnduff June 8, 2010 at 9:41 am

    I wonder how well these travel. The quotes seem a bit overladen to me to be honest, which was my impression of Gilead too. The dialogue seems unpersuasive, and the longer passages try too hard.

    This bit:

    “In college all of them had studied the putative effects of deracination, which were angst and anomie, those dull horrors of the modern world. They had been examined on the subject, had rehearsed bleak and portentous philosophies in term papers, and they had done it with the earnest suspension of doubt that afflicts the highly educable.”

    I see what’s being done there, the expectation of highly educated being turned to highly educable, but I find myself reaching for words like turgid.

    I’ve noticed there are some authors in the US canon who seem to travel poorly. Alice Walker (I thought The Color Purple unconvincing and tedious), Maya Angelou (profoundly obvious greeting card stuff), the common thread is they’re all dealing with aspects of US history and experience which perhaps have local but not wider resonance.

    Delighted to be contradicted though.

  11. Trevor June 8, 2010 at 10:22 am

    No contradictions from me, Max; of course, I can’t contradict since my perspective is from the U.S. and not from outside :).

    I think one of the reasons this language didn’t bother me (in fact, strikes me — and perhaps it loses this when pulled out of its context) is in the way it hearkens back to an earlier style that isn’t used, or used well, today by many writers. I haven’t read much of Alice Walker, and I don’t particularly like Maya Angelou. I wouldn’t compare them to Robinson, though. I think Robinson is more like the writers of the early twentieth centur, and I like that her books, particularly Gilead, feel so perfectly placed because of that.

  12. Max Cairnduff June 8, 2010 at 10:39 am

    A nice point on earlier styles Trevor, that is worth considering. Those older novels sometimes ask for more patience than a modern work, but often repay that patience. I note here you had to invest some time before it unfolded for you, which does remind me of an experience I’ve had with a lot of 19th Century fiction (going back a bit further).

    Good to know the Walker and Angelou comparisons are off base, perhaps I’d formed an erroneous connection. Good job you don’t like Angelou too, as I could probably have put that particular criticism more diplomatically (but her poems are pretty poor).

    Gilead is the masterwork then. What do you make of Housekeeping? Have you read it? Perhaps I’ve been unfair…

  13. Trevor June 8, 2010 at 12:02 pm

    I have read Housekeeping, Max. I’ve even got a review posted here. I very much liked it, and I think it is very different in substance than Gilead or Home. I also think it is because I read Housekeeping first that I don’t consider Robinson’s fiction to be religious; rather, two of her three books have religious characters, and those two are linked. I am a big fan of her fiction.

    If I were ranking the three, I’d put Gilead ahead of Housekeeping by a mile Housekeeping ahead of Home by a few yards. I think all three are in the leading pack of contemporary American fiction.

  14. E June 8, 2010 at 12:16 pm

    I’m going to jump into this conversation a bit late, but most of my thoughts on Robinson come in on the tail end of Max’s last comment.

    What do you make of Housekeeping?

    Personally, I liked Gilead but I can only echo your (Trevor’s) sentiments:

    that Home didn’t match Gilead for its linguistic purity

    but rather

    That Gilead didn’t match Housekeeping

    I own Home but haven’t felt must interest in starting it due to my lack of enthusiasm for Gilead, I do however agree with your comments about M. Robinson as one of the best contemporary American authors but I owe that belief entirely to the hushed lyrical beauty of Housekeeping which, I would argue with you is a much better example of Robinson following the tradition of the American novel under the influences of the Melville, Emerson, …

    I would seriously consider placing in my Top 5 favorite novels of all time… which is saying something, no? I would recommend it (and possibly have) to any/everyone.

    Have you read Housekeeping, and if so, where/how would you place it in the catalog of Robinson’s novels? I feel as though I’m one of few that Gilead, although beautifully written, no doubt, didn’t speak to…

    Sorry, I realize this is a Home discussion, but I’m curious of your thoughts..

  15. Trevor June 8, 2010 at 12:47 pm

    E, I’m always open to watching these discussions go wherever they do.

    You certainly aren’t alone in your thoughts on Gilead. My post for that book has many who, for one reason or another, didn’t feel in it what I did.

    As for Housekeeping, I agree that it is fantastic. I’m not sure I see in it the influences of Melville and Emerson, certainly not the same way I see them in Gilead where I felt the syntax, the word choice, the more transcendental themes, larger scale American history, and spiritual questing were more closely aligned with those writers. That’s not to say I disagree with you; that was just my own perspective and one I’m happy to look at more closely, especially when it requires looking more closely at Robinson’s work.

    Incidentally, after telling Max that I think Gilead ranks ahead of Housekeeping “by a mile,” I reread my post on Housekeeping. As I remembered more, I remembered how great that book is. I’d still put Gilead ahead, but not by a mile.

  16. Trevor June 8, 2010 at 12:50 pm

    Thnking a bit more, when I consider the syntax in Gilead I also think of Faulkner and E.B. White. I didn’t get that in Home and can’t quite remember particular sentences in Housekeeping well enough to say how they made me feel.

  17. Liz June 9, 2010 at 3:53 pm

    I can’t remember how I found this blog/website, but I’m so glad to have somehow stumbled upon it. I love your reviews as well as what you’re reviewing. Very thoughtful comments, too. I read Home without having read Gilead. At times I found it slow–too slow–yet there was something (the superb writing, perhaps?) compelling me to continue at the same time. It got better and better and when I put it down, it took a couple of weeks to shake it from my mind…I then read Netherland and enjoyed it but also found it slow at times. Two very different books but both thought-provoking and giving one a lot to discuss with others. Home stuck with me more–something about the mood, but I recommend both…it might help to be a cricket fan while reading Netherland!

  18. Trevor June 9, 2010 at 4:14 pm

    Thanks for the compliments, Liz. Glad you stopped by too and that you entered the discussion.

    Incidentally, both books you mentioned (as you may well know) are finalists for the IMPAC award. The winner will be announced soon. If you haven’t, you should visit KevinfromCanada’s site and enter his incredibly generous IMPAC contest. The link to his website is on my blogroll, and the link to his blog contest is on his homepage.

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