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1,187 of 1,220 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon November 15, 2004
I considered Marilynne Robinson's first novel, "Housekeeping" to be one of the most beautifully written books I ever read and had hoped she would write another novel. However, when I learned that her new book was about the minister living in the middle of Iowa in the 1950's, I felt let down. I could not think of a setting in which I would have less interest. Nonetheless, I gave "Gilead" a try. I'm so glad I did. It is another example of what the English language is capable of. The prose is spare, as the subject demands. But it quickly becomes a meditation on how even the simplest life can be touched by grace and wonder. I am not a Christian. In fact, I am an atheist. But this book communicated to me the nurture that can be derived from heartfelt, clear minded, prosaic Christianity. Indeed I can't imagine a more spiritual text. I am not as young as I was when I read "Housekeeping" so I am not "swept away" by literature as I once was. But this lyrical book is on some subtle level, transforming. I understand why Ms. Robinson's quiet prose might not appeal to everyone. But this is truly a first rate work of fiction. I am a harsh critic, but I have no trouble giving this book five stars.
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371 of 385 people found the following review helpful
on December 3, 2004
Forgiveness, jealously, love, grace, faith, fear, and resentment are all themes so tightly woven into this beautifully written multi-generational story. Incidents in the story take place in rural Iowa and Kansas from the time of the Civil War through the 1950's. Although that time and culture is much different than most of us are now living, the characters of Rev. John Ames, his father, his grandfather, and his namesake John Ames Broughton are some of the most authentic that I have ever met in fiction.

Gilead is a spiritually fulfilling book and not because (or maybe in spite of the fact) most of the major characters are preachers. The fact that they are preachers only provides a clearer lens in which to see the issues of belief and doubt and how that belief or doubt affects our daily lives. Interesting note that one reviewer who states he is an atheist wrote the book "becomes a meditation on how even the simplest life can be touched by grace and wonder." Perhaps it is the simplest life that is most likely touched by grace and wonder as these characters demonstrate so beautifully in many ways such as Rev. Ames' final blessing of John Ames Broughton and the heartrending scene of the young neglected mother and her naked unnamed child playing in the stream.

I can't decide if this is a simple book or a complicated one, but it is one that could and should be read over and over. It is a significant book; however, do not think that it is "heavy." There is a quiet humor that often surfaces in the least expected places. I only hope that those with a cynical nature do not give up on it during the first part; it takes a while to work through some of the early narrative and what some might consider religious rambling but which provide the context for the confrontations that take place in the last third of the book.

In short, a beautiful book by an outstanding writer.
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293 of 317 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon February 21, 2006
GILEAD is a book that has left me in a bit of a quandary. While I loved the book, I would be hesitant to recommend it to some since it does not conform to today's modern style of writing. This book is written without chapters, in a slowly paced style that requires readers to put themselves in the mindset of John Ames, a preacher in his mid-seventies who is nearing the end of his life. It is a journal of thoughts and memories that is being written to his son. There is no storyline, no plot to follow. It is purely an expression of love from a father to his son.

If you are looking for suspenseful plot twists, wacky best friends or humorous scenarios, this is not the book for you. If you simply want to read a stunning work of art, I highly recommend it.
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46 of 47 people found the following review helpful
HALL OF FAMEVINE VOICEon November 27, 2004
This is the work of a master storyteller that one could fairly compare with Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" and Carson McCullers' "The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter". Author Marilynne Robinson has written a beautiful novel, concise and poignant with only a modicum of action but a depth of feeling all too rare in today's fiction. Set in mid-fifties Iowa, the dying, 76-year old Reverend John Ames narrates a long letter to his seven-year-old son born of his much younger second wife. It is not to be read until after the death of a father, who won't be around to see his boy grow up. The old man's purpose is to provide the boy with his "begats", a family history of biblical proportions that stretches from the Civil War to the civil rights movement. Through his discourse, Ames introduces his father and grandfather, who have split bitterly over the elder Ames' sometimes violent association with abolitionists, including John Brown. The reverend then details his boyhood quest to find the patriarch's Kansas grave. Before the Civil War, Gilead had become a haven for Brown and his supporters, as it was just across the border from bloody Kansas. The biblical parallels are clear, as Gilead is the land east of the Jordan traditionally viewed as the source of a healing salve, the balm of Gilead. But in the Old Testament, this same region also carries less than peaceful associations and is sometimes described as a place of bloodshed and inequity. With Brown, Ames' grandfather rode and once preached to his flock in a red-stained shirt with a pistol tucked in his belt. Ames tells this fascinating family history with alternate strokes of regret and pleasure.

Intergenerational conflicts provide the core theme of Robinson's story, as fathers and sons move on similar paths but are motivated by different passions. Much of the book reads like a spiritual diary, until one day, the prodigal son of Ames' best friend, Jack Boughton, returns to Gilead, and it is obvious that Ames has a divisive relationship with him. The source of the friction slowly reveals itself. Decades before, young Boughton brought disgrace on himself and his family then disappeared. But now Boughton starts visiting Ames and begins to assimilate himself within the Ames family. Ames agonizes over whether to reveal the evil of Boughton's past, but his greater good dominates. Ames' beliefs accumulate to express, with rare fullness and grace, nothing less than the divine riddle of existence. And while this revelation is spiritual in nature, the tone is far from sanctimonious thanks to Robinson's clear-eyed prose. As a reflection of the author, Ames possesses an agile intellect and an intimidating capacity for mindfulness, which one could see as a gift of his physical infirmity, but also of a lifetime of self-examination through writing and thinking.

The book covers a century from the 1850s to 1956, when Ames sets down his story. Implicitly, it looks far into the future -- Ames imagines his little boy as an old man -- and in spirit back to biblical times. Much of what Ames describes is idyllic, but he also brings up darker memories, whether it's a fire set at the Negro church or the plight of an ignorant unwed mother. Eventually one realizes that beyond a portrait of the human condition, Robinson also introduces a more specific subtext in describing the challenging quest for social and racial justice. She has an uncanny gift to point up her moral wisdom and common sense with dry humor. I have never read Robinson's much-praised first novel, "Housekeeping" but now I'm curious to read it if only to see how her writing style has evolved over the years. Strongly recommended, one of the best pieces of fiction I've read in years.
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126 of 140 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon March 30, 2007
Reverend John Ames, who is in his seventies, has a weak heart. Before he goes, he decides to leave a testament for his seven-year-old son.

The amazing aspect of this book, for me, was how well Marilynne Robinson was able to inhabit the mind of a minister, and what a well-rounded character Ames was. Despite himself, he cannot refrain from resentment. The object of his wrath is his best friend's prodigal son, John Ames Boughton. Ames had baptized "Jack," but at the time was unaware his best friend, a Presbyterian minister he had known all his life, had planned to name the baby after him. Ames resents this because he had no son of his own at the time, having lost his first wife and child during child birth.

During his youth, young Jack seemed to go out of his way to antagonize Ames. Now that Boughton has returned to Gilead, Iowa, to visit his dying father, Ames must learn to forgive.

At first we know nothing about why Ames resents young Boughton, but slowly, very slowly, Robinson provides dribs and drabs of their history. Meanwhile, Ames recalls some of his old sermons. I found myself rereading several pages, trying to decipher this stuff. Ames himself realizes he was no Jonathan Edwards as he wants most of them burned when he's gone. However, he does have his moments as in, "The twinkling of an eye. That is the most wonderful expression. I've thought from time to time it was the best thing in life, that little incandescence you see in people when the charm of a thing strikes them or the humor of it. `The light of the eyes rejoiceth the heart.' That's a fact."

For me, a far more intriguing character than Jack Boughton was Ames's second wife, the mother of the seven-year-old, who married him when he was in his late sixties. She's an uneducated woman. She comes to Ames, at first, to be baptized. "No one seen to it for me when I was a child," she says. "I been feeling the lack of it." Unfortunately, Robinson never does give us much background other than that she was from a poor family.

The other pivotal character in the book is Ames's grandfather, also a minister, who fought with John Brown prior to the Civil War. There is a dispute between the old minister and Ames's father when he finds out the old man may have killed a union soldier. At the beginning of the book, Ames and his father are looking for the old man's grave.

Epistolary novels usually aren't my cup of tea, but by providing Ames with an atheist older brother and subversive books that he still reads to check out the opposing viewpoint, Robinson manages to show a man still evolving even at the tender age of seventy-four.
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46 of 49 people found the following review helpful
on January 21, 2006
I loved this book. I am not religious nor have I ever been, but the deep resonance of the author's musings on human life ring true, religious or not. There were passages in this book that I re-read as soon as I finished, because the cadance was so perfectly realized and the meaning so honest and simply bared. As a writer, I have a deep respect for the harmony of this book. There is not a false note. You are drawn in to the extent that it is hard to imagine that this man did not live, and you are convinced to the extent that you believe he probably has, because the author has such a wonderful depth of understanding for the uniqueness of each person's experience of life. Many times reading this story I had a similar feeling I get from reading great poetry- of being swept away into another person's reality, to the point of tears, at the end of the book- I finished the last chapter quietly crying.

I think this book could be boring if you had a lack of imagination, lack of fascination for human experience, or a very short attention span, and want to be spun round by plot mechanisms. I'm not a fan of being bored either, but I truly think feeling that way reading this book would not be a failure of the author's skill. This book is certainly not filled with the kind of super-IQ vocabulary that can be a turn off when trying to be absorbed in a book. Not a word is wasted here.

If nothing else, this book is beautiful.

And that is more than enough.
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59 of 65 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon March 20, 2006
Gilead could be a hard book to read if you are someone nursed on the fast-moving prose of writers like Jonathan Safran Foer or Glen David Gold. Gilead is a generational story that moves at its own relentless pace, but the relentlessness is more about the inevitable passage of time than it is about speed of any kind.

Four generation of men and their relationships with God, their father and their sons is the thread at the heart of this lovely little book. Written as a letter from Reverend John Ames to the son of his old age, Gilead treats on subjects as diverse as sectarian difference, the abolitionist movement, heresy and small town Iowa (where the book is set). As befitting the subject, the prose is plain and well-paced. It takes real skill to bring most of this book's busy readers down to the pace of the novel. I read Housekeeping long ago, but I intend to revisit it now again, after having read Gilead.

I have some small concerns about the book. Not the least of which is the dissonance with my own small town experience. Not for nothing has Robinson set this a generation or two earlier than most readers. Still, it is hauntingly beautiful in places, and a book that I kept thinking about long after I closed the cover and put it away.
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49 of 54 people found the following review helpful
on April 2, 2005
Certainly the "themes" of GILEAD are nothing new, but what the author does with them is astounding. We've seen the father-son relationship theme explored in novels and movies such as BIG FISH and certainly BARK OF THE DOGWOOD explored not only that, but the theme of religion and history as well. But this new novel takes things a step further. I absolutely adored this novel. When John Ames tells the story of his family he makes his abolitionist preacher grandfather come alive and makes the reader a part of his history. Ames' voice read so true that I constantly had to remind myself that this was fiction. I had to stop reading to ruminate on both Robinson's perfectly selected words and on what they conveyed. I felt like Robinson had distilled the entire Old Testament into one psalm of love and grace. VERY insightful and full of hidden meaning (if you look for it), GILEAD deserves its place among the bestsellers.
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27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on July 23, 2006
I struggled to get into this book initially. Perhaps it was that I didn't relate to the elderly, relgious narrator. However, I hate to give up on anything - not only did I warm to the story but I warmed to Ames, the narrator, and his heartfelt attempt to communicate with his young son. This is beautifully written and such a sad, haunting story. The fragility and fleeting nature of life is captured well and it made me reflect on my own mortality (so it is not fun). Ames contemplates the future of the lives of his loved ones once he has passed over and attempts to provide his young son with the means by which to gain some knowledge of his father, the person. Perservere to get past the early stages of the book. The true Ames does reveal himself and what he has to say has wider relevance than you would think.
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39 of 43 people found the following review helpful
GILEAD is among the best books I have read in years, luminous and filled with grace. The year is 1956; the setting, Gilead, an isolated town on the Iowa/Kansas border. Knowing that he is dying, John Ames, an old Congregationalist minister, writes a long letter as spiritual legacy for his young son. By the time he is finished, one has come to know him and love him and to cherish his view of a simple but challenging world suffused with the mercy of God. I am no longer a Christian, and have no fondness for the great plains, but GILEAD makes me feel with those who see the wonder of both.

Early in the book, the minister, John Ames, remarks: "It was one day as I listened to baseball that it occurred to me how the moon actually moves, in a spiral, because while it orbits the earth it also follows the orbit of the earth around the sun. This is obvious, but the realization pleased me. There was a full moon outside my window, icy white in a blue sky, and the Cubs were playing Cincinnati." This paragraph, which I quote here in full, is by no means the most beautiful in the book, but it illustrates the quality of the minister's thought: often abstract ideas described in simple language by a man who, though deeply spiritual, is by no means withdrawn from the world around him. Far from it.

This paragraph also provides the key to the way the book is written: in spiral fashion. The first fifty pages or so are virtually plotless, but bracing and seductive at the same time. Images of water and of light, of beauty and of blessing, recur, interweave, echo, and build upon one another. As was the case with Robinson's HOUSEKEEPING (1981), one finds oneself reading more and more slowly, going back over paragraph after paragraph to savor its beauty. By the time one has gone a quarter way into the book, one finds oneself seeing through Ames's eyes, and sharing his belief in the existence of God. Unlike the earlier novel, the writing style here totally matches the character and education of the writer. This book is dominated by light rather than by darkness, and its small western town is a symbol of settlement rather than transience.

The spiral motion of the book continues throughout, drawing the reader deeper and deeper into Ames's soul and conscience. Gradually a narrative emerges, spanning at least four generations. There is Ames's grandfather, a Civil War veteran and also a preacher, who practices a fierce piratical form of Christianity. There is his father, another minister, who returned from the Great War a pacifist and could no longer see eye to eye with the grandfather. There is Ames's older brother, who went off to study theology in Germany and returned an atheist. There is Ames's first wife who died bearing his first child, and the baby with her. And there is the nine-year-old boy playing with the family cat outside the window, and his mother, Ames's much loved second wife, scarcely half his age.

But the relationship which turns out to be most important of all is not about a blood relative, but the child of Ames's best friend, his godson John Ames Boughton, the names given in a gesture of friendship which the older man feels to be a burden as much as a compliment. For Jack Boughton turns out to be the black sheep of his family, much loved by his natural father, but a bitter reminder of Ames's own long life of widowerhood and childlessness. When Jack returns and casts his charm over Ames's young family, Ames fears his influence on his wife and son after he is dead and finds it hard to forgive Jack for the sins of his past. His struggles with conscience lead the reader into areas of theology which, alone in the book, can be difficult to follow. But the outcome is grace itself, bringing the spiralling images from the earlier part of the novel together in a simple act of blessing.

More even than the Turgenyev novel of that name, this book is truly about Fathers and Sons, debts and disagreements, transgression and forgiveness, and the miracle of unconditional love. A profoundly human book deeply rooted in everyday life, it is also a work of theology, without preachiness or pretension. For it is impossible to read the tale through Ames's eyes without also respecting his attempts to be worthy of the example of another Father: God's love for his sons in this flawed but still-lovely world of his creation.
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