Gilead: A Novel Paperback – January 10, 2006
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“At a moment in cultural history dominated by the shallow, the superficial, the quick fix, Marilynne Robinson is a miraculous anomaly: a writer who thoughtfully, carefully, and tenaciously explores some of the deepest questions confronting the human species. . . . Poignant, absorbing, lyrical...Robinson manages to convey the miracle of existence itself.” ―Merle Rubin, Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Incandescent . . . magnificent . . . [a] literary miracle.” ―Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly (A)
“Rapturous . . . astonishing . . . Gilead is an inspired work from a writer whose sensibility seems steeped in holy fire.” ―Lisa Shea, Elle
“Lyrical and meditative . . . potently contemplative.” ―Michele Orecklin, Time
“Perfect.” ―Jeremy Jackson, People(four stars)
“Major.” ―Philip Connors, Newsday
“You must read this book. . . . Altogether unlike any other work of fiction, it has sprung forth more than twenty years after Housekeeping with what I can only call amazing grace.” ―Anne Hulbert, Slate
“So serenely beautiful and written in a prose so gravely measured and thoughtful, that one feels touched with grace just to read it.” ―Michael Dirda, The Washington Post
“There are passages here of such profound, hard-won wisdom and spiritual insight that they make your own life seem richer. . . . Gilead [is] a quiet, deep celebration of life that you must not miss.” ―Ron Charles, The Christian Science Monitor
“Gilead is a refuge for readers longing for that increasingly rare work of fiction, one that explores big ideas while telling a good story. As John Ames might point out, it's a remarkable thing to consider.” ―Olivia Boler, San Francisco Chronicle
About the Author
- Publisher : Picador; Reprint edition (January 10, 2006)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 247 pages
- ISBN-10 : 031242440X
- ISBN-13 : 978-0312424404
- Item Weight : 8 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.4 x 0.75 x 8.27 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #14,337 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
"A timely novel highlighting the worth and delicate nature of Nature itself." -Delia Owens Learn more
Top reviews from the United States
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This is not a story for the inattentive, or even for those who simply prefer a straightforward plot. Gilead's storyteller weaves back and forth between at least five different sub-plots, sometimes jumping ahead in one before telling us the meaning of the other. One almost needs to read it twice, simply to see again what he meant he made the reference to his grandfather in the first part of the story, before we had ever met his grandfather or known about his relationship with him. There is a central narrative of events that take place in the story's present, as the minister is writing, but this narrative is often sidelined by the stories of the past or general philosophical asides on Calvinist doctrine.
This may make the book sound dull or didactic, but in fact it is neither. The Calvinist doctrine comes across more as a character trait than as the author preaching at the reader, and reflect more on the self and the needs of the soul than on the nature of sin and the cosmos. And while the book is definitely slow and contemplative--even the stories of the past rarely ascend beyond a shouting match, the human drama at the heart of it makes the entire story compelling in a way that should resonate with many readers. The minister has fears, doubts, and regrets like any man, but he is also, unquestionably, a good man, looking back at his life and struggling with jealousies and resentments he knows are unjustified. He is a good man without being an idealized one; a refreshing thing in modern fiction.
Gilead is not a fiery book. It is not a fast book. It does not explode with passion or shout for your attention in the normal ways. It is wandering and thoughtful and at times conflicted. It is, in fact, most like sitting in the living room with a very old friend, talking of days that have gone by and days that are to come. It is a book for people of all ages, races, and creeds, and a book I thoroughly recommend.
Top reviews from other countries
The book describes a bit of his relationship with his wife and son, and with his parents and grandfather, and his good friend Boughton. It throws in one or two anecdotes, but particularly in the latter part of the book, it focuses on John Ames Boughton - the black sheep son of his friend - who has returned to Gilead. As John Senior approaches death, he is particularly worried about Jack, his namesake, who, he believes, has designs on his wife and child. Jack is aware of his disapproval and they have several discussions, where Jack seems to be asking for forgiveness for past sins, and John seems unable to put aside his suspicions about him. Finally Jack reveals his secret concerns, and suddenly, John thinks of him in a different way, and wants to bless him and help him.
Once again, I am looking at the reviews on the back page of my current reading circle read, and wondering if I am incredibly shallow, because I cannot work out why the reviewers think so highly of this work. ‘Dazzling originality’/ ‘perfect pitch’/’a great work of literature’ are some of the comments. Yet again, a set of reviews, full of praise which I can’t echo.
In fact, this book sent me off to sleep so many times, it could be recommended as a useful sleeping draught.
One third of the way through the book, all I could say was that there were some pages which made me smile, some curious, but on the whole, I came back to these ramblings of an old man, not remembering what I had read before. Perhaps this says more about me than about the book.
Towards the end of the book, I thought we were moving towards some sort of a denouement, but it just didn’t happen. There were occasional references to matters mentioned earlier on in the book, but it felt as if I had been reading the book for so long, that I couldn’t any longer remember the beginning.
Aside from not finding much of a plot, or much interest in his story, I could not empathise with John, and for a preacher, I did not find him full of the milk of human kindness.
I would have been interested to know more about the back story of John’s wife. What made her marry an old man? And why was a certain emphasis put on her uneducated status, actually in a rather patronising way by John, without it being followed through. I thought more could have been made of their meeting and their decision to marry. Was the child really his, or did she marry John to give the child a father. For some time, I thought that Jack was the father of the child, and that might have been an interesting development. However, instead of this, was this sprawling non-story, masquerading as a novel.
I can’t give it more than 5 out of 10, which would equate to 2.5 stars, but I’m not feeling that generous, so it’s 2.
The thoughts and ideas of the reverend who narrates this book through writings to his son are so well developed that it seems to me that they must, at least in part, reflect the ideas of the author herself.
Some of the writing is philosophical in character and does need more careful attention then you might usually give to a novel. For example, when the reverend explains his view on our inability to understand the nature of God he writes :
" ... if God is the Author of existence what can it mean to say God exists? There's a problem in vocabulary. He would have had to have had a character before existence which the poverty of our understanding can only call existence. That is clearly a source of confusion". Not your standard fare!
But, don't get me wrong, the book is not all hard going and it does contain an interesting story, especially in the second half (which I wont spoil).
If I was to quibble with the book at all (and sometimes you simply feel not worthy to do so with some writers) it is that I didn't really like the book being presented as the writings of an elderly dying reverend to his very young son. I found this a bit of a distraction and would have preferred it to have been presented as a memoir to be read by me the reader.
But make no mistake Marilynne Robinson is a stellar writer, and this book has prompted me to investigate her more academic writings. I am partial to the writings of people like Dennett and Dawkins who she apparently attacks, so it should be interesting to see what she has to say on the limits of science.
Robinson writes with a clear unadorned style drawing heavily on biblical texts but it is not a religious tract, it is the story of a man’s life, his memories, his regrets and loves. The first few lines grabbed me and didn’t let me go. Do not start reading this book if you are feeling impatient. Some passages are easy and quick to read, others deserve more thought. It unwinds slowly like a length of thread, telling us the story of John Ames, his father and grandfather, the legacy of the Ames family which has been inherited by the Reverend’s seven-year old son.
I am not religious and some of the references will have passed me by. In the first half of the novel, I would think ‘oh no not another section about religion’, but as I read deeper into the book I became drawn into the stories of John Ames and his forebears and how their beliefs shaped their lives. I wanted to know what happened to John Ames Boughton, the troublesome son of his best friend and fellow reverend. I wanted to know how the Reverend Ames met his second wife. Some of the questions posed are not answered until the very end.
It is a peaceful novel, set against the backdrop of Fifties Iowa, which draws on local history including the Underground Railroad. Robinson draws a picture of the Gilead community, the people, their kindnesses, their grievances. She paints a clear picture. ‘We were very pious children from pious households in a fairly pious town.’
At times, the writing was so sublime I re-read. For example, ‘Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday. It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain. You can feel the silent and invisible life.’
‘Gilead’, the second novel by Marilynne Robinson, won two prizes in 2005: the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the National Book Critics Circle Award. I came to it with trepidation, having respected the writing style of her first novel, ‘Housekeeping’, but struggled with the pace of the narrative.