3.5 / 5
"I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I'm old, and you said, I don't think you're old. And you put your hand on my hand and you said, You aren't very old, as if that settled it."
Twenty-four years after her first novel, Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson returns with an intimate tale of three generations from the Civil War to the twentieth century: a story about fathers and sons and the spiritual battles that still rage at America's heart. Writing in the tradition of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, Marilynne Robinson's beautiful, spare, and spiritual prose allows "even the faithless reader to feel the possibility of transcendent order" (Slate). In the luminous and unforgettable voice of Congregationalist minister John Ames, Gilead reveals the human condition and the often unbearable beauty of an ordinary life.
I know I was supposed to love this little book. I found it beautiful, and moving at times. But it was so slow. For such a slim volume, it felt like it took me ages to read. And it was so religious! It just wasn’t my cup of tea. I was able to look past the religiosity because I didn’t feel as if that was the writer’s point, but it was glaringly there all the while, as the book detailed three generations of preachers.
With her spare prose, the author manages to write some very memorable moments. She reminds me quite a bit of Faulkner. I felt the wideness of the prairie and the smallness of the town and of John’s life in every sentence. He never strayed far from Gilead, but that suited him. He was a preacher to a small congregation in a small and weary town, one which had an auspicious history but which now feels dusty and run-down. Quiet. Unassuming. And for John, home.
John Ames had a simple way about him, finding joy and beauty in the world, and I did appreciate that about the book. He found joy in the simple pleasures and noticed the smallest wonders, which is a thing I strive for always, and so I found a kindred spirit in him in this. I think I would have loved to have spent some time just sitting with the narrator on his front porch.
I liked the juxtaposition of the town’s beginnings and the book’s ultimate conflict (if that is what Jack’s story amounted to), but I feel as if it just wasn’t enough for me. I got drawn in by the stories of John and his father and grandfather, all three very strong personalities in their own ways. But I found I just stopped caring, and I don’t have much interest in what happens to John’s son, when he finally begins to read the pages. The story was quaint, and sweet, and touching. I’ll give it that. And it had a lot of promise. But I just didn’t feel as if I was able to take anything away from it. And I think that should be the point of any book. Don’t you?
P.S. Not that it should sway you one way or the other, but, just so you know -- this is one of Obama’s favorite books.
P.P.S. Full disclosure: I read this for my book club. Would I have picked it up anyway? Probably. It’s been enjoyed by many. And it's a Pulitzer Prize winner, after all.
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