I’ll admit it up front. I was disappointed with Home, Marilynne Robinson’s latest novel. There are some finely spun sentences and evocative passages. The final pages breathe with emotional reality, and Robinson’s rich knowledge of Christian theology produces some rewarding insights. But the novel as a whole is workmanlike.
High expectations undoubtedly contributed to my disappointment. Robinson’s first novel, Housekeeping, has an aching beauty. The story focuses on Ruth and Lucille, two sisters raised by their aunt in the imaginary small town of Fingerbone, Idaho. The haunting reality of memory eventually becomes more substantial then the physical structure of their house, and by the end of the novel Robinson succeeds in making the reader feel as though Ruth and Lucille are thin, spectral waifs who have left behind the solid, everyday reality of life.
If Housekeeping spiritualizes, then Gilead, her second and widely (and justly) praised novel, moves in the other direction. Written as an extended letter by John Ames, an aging Methodist preacher in the imaginary town of Gilead, Iowa, to his young, late-born son, the novel takes its readers inside the memories and anxieties and musings of a man who has settled into a modest but confident faith.
Home also takes place in Gilead in the 1950s, focusing on the Boughtons and their travails rather than John Ames and his family. The Reverend Robert Boughton is the local Presbyterian minister, the life-long friend of John Ames. As readers know from the earlier novel, he christened one of his sons John Ames Boughton. The name, however, seems to have cursed rather than blessed young Jack Boughton. His life has been reprobate.
As the novel begins, however, all this lies in the past. Old Robert Boughton is long retired, bent, and diminished with age. His youngest daughter Glory has had to face her own failures, and she moves back to the memory-filled family home to take care of her much declined father. Late in the spring, Jack, the errant son, returns after a twenty-year absence.
The main bulk of the novel depicts Jack, Glory, and the old father and their emotionally difficult interactions across the summer months. The main outlines are plain. Jack is the favorite son, and yet his whole life has been a disappointment to his father. Theft, alcoholism, an illegitimate child who died under unfortunate circumstance: These and other flaws in Jack’s character culminate in an attempted suicide at the end of the novel. Robinson leaves little doubt. Jack Boughton is the prodigal son.
Robinson has a fine theological mind, and she probes the limitations of the outlook represented by the retired minister. Over his years of preaching, Reverend Boughton left behind the more severe theology of his Calvinist forbearers represented by the honored but unread old books of theology. Instead, he rhapsodized on the great power of forgiveness and the gentleness of God’s grace. The problem, however, is that the earthly father cannot put into action his merciful theology of the benevolent heavenly Father. The canker of remembered wrongs and dashed hopes continue to afflict him.
Memory afflicts Jack and Glory as well. Each is deeply wounded by their senses of self-betrayal, self-inflicted loss. Glory was half-knowingly exploited for years by a fiancé who never intended to marry. Jack feels his failures keenly, all the more so because a subplot has him suffering the perhaps deserved loss of what he loves, his estranged wife Della and their son. It turns out that grace cannot be cheaply had. The reality of sin outweighs easy theological rhetoric and fine Christian feelings.
At her best, Robinson gives subtle form to the situation by way of biblical allusion. Jack goes out to a secret, remembered spot of his youth to harvest a late spring delicacy, wild morel mushrooms. Like Esau, he returns home and puts them on his father’s lap, softly asking his father, “Bless me, even me also.” The old pastor, however, is taken aback by what amounts to a request for forgiveness. “No,” he says “that’s Esau. You’re confusing Esau with Jacob.”
The rebuke suggests Reverend Boughton’s theology of forgiveness. Jack has always been the one predestined for blessing, the one who does not need to be forgiven. Perhaps more accurately, the insistence that Jack adopt the role of Jacob expresses the old minister’s theological conviction that all of us are always already forgiven in a plenary power of God’s paternal love.
Jack response to his father’s protest, however, is to twist the screw another turn. He recalls his own past as a petty thief. “Yes, I am the smooth man. How could I forget? I’m the one who has to steal the blessing.” The biting irony sets the old man along a very different track, one that contradicts his protests of love and acceptance: “You never had to steal one thing in your entire life. There was never any need for it. I have been searching my memory on that point.” A tender scene that began with a request for forgiveness ends with accusation.
There is no resolution. By the end of the novel the old father begins to lose his mind. His accusations against his wayward son are uttered clearly, without anxious retreats into protests of love and forgiveness. Jack leaves, returning to his life as a shiftless drifter, unable to face his brothers and sisters who are returning as their father slides toward death. The infection of sin knows no easy cure.
As the novel draws to a close, Robinson leaves her readers with a thin, spectral sense of redemption, the faint answer to the rest longed for by the soul. Glory will inherit the rambling house, its solid, respectable, old furniture, and its ragged-edged gardens. In the final scene, after Jack has left, Della arrives with their son, whose name is Robert, evoking for the reader the love Jack has for his father, a love that could neither repair the broken past nor silence afflicting memories. Glory imagines the young man returning some day to the old house, which is family love and loyalty given physical form. Just one afternoon on the porch, she thinks, just one future visit by the young Robert Boughton will be enough—enough to allow her to believe that coming Home to Gilead somehow keeps alive the promise of love’s triumph.
Gilead is stunningly successful as a work of fiction. In Robinson’s prose, the memories of John Ames become living events and engaging personalities. The most remarkable character is his grandfather, also named John Ames, a fiery antislavery preacher whom the grandson remembers as a one-eyed prophet testifying with an urgency that would have given St. Francis pause. In this instance, the literary device of a diary-like extended letter works perfectly. The same holds for many of the other characters and episodes that give Gilead. Marilynne Robinson can write richly layered prose, stacking highly equivocal and emotionally resonant language on top of nuanced and precise descriptions of landscapes, town scenes, and the smell of bacon in the kitchen of a ramshackle old house. The literary conceit of a long letter gathering up the experience of a lifetime provides a perfect vehicle for this remarkable literary talent. The old grandfather and others can be both real and mythical, described with the narrative realism of remembered episode while draped in allusive, atmospheric description.
Home is far less successful. Written as in a conventionally narrated novel, the prose drags. Glory and Jack are forever engaged in getting-to-know-you-after-long-estrangement conversations that invariably end with one or both saying “I’m sorry.” In fact, nearly all the dialogue is stilted and formulaic. The same holds for the narration. Robinson adopts the conceit of Jack touching his hand to his face as a signal of shame—and she repeats it again and again and again. As characters, Jack and Glory and the old Reverend Boughton are so emotionally static that they quickly become predictable and uninteresting.
And then there are embarrassingly pious and one-dimensional evocations of the civil rights movement. Robinson portrays a scene where Jack and his father watch television and see police attacking black demonstrators. She has the old reverend mouth a platitude: “I do believe it is necessary to enforce the law. The apostle Paul says we should do everything ‘decently and in order.’ You can’t have people running around the streets like that.” When he dozes off, Jack turns to Glory to express his horror; “The fire hoses. Fire hoses. There were kids.” Readers later discover that Jack’s estranged wife is black, and thus his son is among the kids. But this personal involvement in the reality of racial prejudice and division that was coming to a boil in the 1950s brings no nuance, no intricate complexity to these or any other scenes. This includes the final scene, where Robinson interposes blunt allusions to the menace of racism into a scene in which it is otherwise strangely (given the time) irrelevant.
Marilynne Robinson is a rare contemporary writer. Religious convictions animate her characters in all sorts of interesting, complex, and entirely believable ways. It is tempting, therefore, to simply champion her work. But I can’t. There are many affecting moments in Home when Robinson evokes the caressing familiarity of small town life, but as a narrative the story is largely inert, the characters are one-dimensional, and the dialogue too often mechanical. It’s not a strikeout. But after a Homerun like Gilead, it reads like a blooper to right field.
R.R. Reno, features editor at First Things, is an associate professor of theology at Creighton University.