Books of 2013, #21: Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.

Robinson deserved every single award she won — and more — for Gilead. It’s tremendous and amazing, and took my breath away with its painterly language and absolute grasp of its reader at every moment. I really can’t say enough nice things about it, but I’m also at a loss as to how to explain its hold on me without veering into the trivial or banal.

I’ll try anyway.

John Ames is an old preacher in 1950s Gilead, Iowa, and he knows he’s dying. Married young, he lost his first wife giving birth to their daughter — who then died soon after. Ames then spent the bulk of his adult life as a bachelor pastor, caring and being cared for by his flock. His closest friend, another local pastor named Boughton, cares for Ames deeply and sort of incorporates him into his own family, as much as was practical; he even shocks his old friend by naming his son John Ames Boughton, about which more later.

Ames gets the surprise of his life when, at 67, a single young woman joins his church and effectively captures his heart. They are soon married, at her instigation, and soon have a son. The book takes the form of a long letter written to the young son he’ll never see grow up, a situation that weighs heavily on Ames’ heart.

The letter is not a tedious sort of Polonius-to-Laertes monologue about borrowing and lending, though; instead, it’s mostly full of his own recollections of his life — he’s acutely conscious of the fact that he remembers clearly things like the Civil War that will seem distant, ancient history to his son, for example. Another good chunk of the recollection is spent on his own theological and philosophical grappling, but not in any sort of evangelical way; Robinson is a practicing Christian, but this book isn’t a work of proselytization. What she does do, quite well, is paint a beautiful portrait of John Ames’ mind, his memories, his loves, the conflicts of his life — past and present — and the ways in which he prepares for his own looming departure. It sounds simple. In a way, it is, but in so many ways it is not.

It’s pretty rare that I find myself profoundly moved by a book. Gilead did it. It is a thing of rare beauty and grace, and you will find yourself better for making time to read it.

In the years since Gilead was published in 2004, by the way, Robinson has published Home, her third novel. Home is a contemporaneous story to Gilead, told from the perspective of the Boughton family (mostly adult daughter Glory) as Old Boughton nears his own end, and as the prodigal son John Ames Boughton returns. I am deeply tempted to return to the world of Gilead, Iowa, through this book, but I’m holding off and savoring the window I’ve just finished, and wondering how much I’ll miss John Ames’ voice when I inevitably return.

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