Home by Marilynne Robinson

When I am in an antique store and see something I am certain I will like, I will often circle widely and insist upon looking carefully at the things intervening, even though there is a quiet voice insisting that none of these things are as good as that other.  I do not make beelines and squeal.  Instead, I feel I must pay the other goods the courtesy of checking them out as well, even as my mind grows curious about the just-out-of-reach item.  It could also be merely my effort not to miss something in my haste, but the prolonged anticipation must bring its own joy somehow.

Ever since I read Gilead, I've been taking my time getting to the companion book (same characters and timeframe, different perspectives) Home.  I have been so confident in the pleasure it will bring that I've held it at arms-length, giving other books a chance in the meanwhile.  While this odd technique usually works for me, at least in shopping, this time it did not pay off.  Home is still a well-crafted and beautiful book, but it did not leave me breathless as Gilead did, insisting that I press it into the hands of all the readers I know and love.  I blame, on the one hand, the distance.  I kept feeling a nagging disconnect, as if the characters that should have been familiar were changed in some unknowable way.  I couldn't call to mind the specific details of Boughton in Gilead (other than his faithful friendship with Ames), so I was bothered by feeling this version wasn't true.

On the other hand, the book itself is not as complete and masterful as Gilead.  Ames' voice is a triumph, and there is nothing in Home to approach it.  There was no character so central, other than perhaps the house, and the intimacy we felt in Gilead is notably absent here.  Here also, I saw Robinson's tendency toward erudition occasionally overwhelm her narrative.  In Gilead, when we felt Robinson working something out, it fit within Ames' scholarly character.  In Home, we don't get the same fluid movement - we go from Glory asking herself "Why would anyone stay here?" at the bottom of 281 to the following passage at the top of 282:
In college all of them had studied the putative effects of deracination, which were angst and anomie, those dull horrors of the modern world.  They had been examined on the subject, had rehearsed bleak and portentous philosophies in term papers, and they had done it with the earnest suspension of doubt that afflicts the highly educable.  And then their return to the pays natal, where the same old willows swept the same ragged lawns, where the same old prairie arose and bloomed as negligence permitted.  Home.  What kinder place could there be on earth, and why did it seem to them all like exile?  Oh, to be passing anonymously through an impersonal landscape!  Oh, not to know every stump and stone, not to remember how the fields of Queen Anne's lace figured in the childish happiness they had offered to their father's hopes, God bless him.
It's not that this passage demonstrates bad writing; far from it.  But it doesn't fit with the narrative thrust of the moment.  It feels like Robinson's ideological workings forced into a moment.  It doesn't fit with Glory's thinking, or her voice, somehow.

Finally, I have trouble with the character of Jack.  I know.  Shoot me.  Like Stephenie Meyer insisting upon Edward Cullen's perfection (with no narrative proof of it), Robinson offers only Jack's insistence (and his father's, his sister's, Ames', and the townspeople's) that he is "bad," but all we see is a gentle, broken man.  Even his sins (debts, drunkenness, petty theft, callous regard for responsibilities) are meek somehow.  I don't believe his evil nature, and the whole philosophical searching of the book hinges upon this assertion.  I know it is not crucial that we believe he is evil; rather, we must only believe that he believes it.  I guess I just don't understand how the man we meet in this story could believe he is all bad or even why his family felt it.  Because he didn't hang around the house much?  Because he played pranks as a kid?  Because he was late to church?  Because he didn't know how to deal with being a teenage father, so he ran away?  I just don't see the evil.  There is too much thoughtfulness in his actions, too much consideration for the thoughts and feelings of others.

There is a piece of me that wants to reread Gilead - or at least skim for overlapping elements - now, but I probably won't.  I will say, though, that I believe these books would be better read in succession.  Though they do stand alone capably, the reader will get the most complete picture by reading them together.


  1. Home didn't sweep me away the way Gilead did (I completely agree with you about the perfection of Ames's voice and the fact that nothing in Home approaches it), but it did enrich my perceptions of the story as a whole. Re: Jack, I don't think we're supposed to believe he's evil - far from it. If I perceived anyone as "bad" according to the book itself, I'd say it's Rev. Boughton, whose rigid expectations and casual racism keeps his son at a distance even as the father wishes to get closer (of course, Robinson's portrayal avoids demonizing him). To me the pathos of the story comes exactly from the fact of Jack's ordinary-ness: he's just a regular guy who never quite fit in in his small town, and had the misfortune to find himself in a society that discriminated against his first real mutual, constructive relationship.

  2. Such an interesting review - must be difficult to review something you're not so keen on. It seems, though, that there's alot in this book that may be worth looking at sometime. Thanks for the honest review.

  3. Emily, you make a good point about Jack's ordinary-ness. I agree that his ill fit with his hometown contributed a great deal to his sense of isolation. But even if we're not supposed to see him as "evil," the town and Jack himself definitely do, and I just couldn't buy it.

    Tamara, I actually did enjoy the book, and it is definitely worth reading. It wasn't that I hated it; I just didn't like it nearly as much as Gilead and not hardly as much as I thought I would. That's almost worse than when you don't have the high expectations in advance, don't you think?

  4. Interesting to read a different take on Home than my own. I loved it but haven't yet read Gilead and am sort of holding off reading it as you were but might just bump it up the pile to get a better sense of comparison.
    I felt that Jack had an innate goodness and suffered the disappointment of knowing he didn't fit in, at Home or anywhere.
    My review is here for comparison: http://theknockingshop.blogspot.com/2011/04/home.html

  5. Thanks, Jet Phantom, for stopping by and for leaving a comment. I appreciated exploring your blog and look forward to more!

  6. Hi Sara, I did get around to reading Gilead and have posted my impressions if you're interested. I loved it btw.