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.