Thursday, January 23, 2020

Home, by Marilynne Robinson

Today I thought I'd repost my review, published when it first came out, of the great Marilynne Robinson's third novel, Home. Robinson is a truly remarkable writer of fiction (I find her essays less convincing, though still well-written.) All of her novels have had adoring notice, so this novel is not by any means forgotten, and it's not at all old (though it probably did sell well.) But it does deserve as much mention as it can get!

Home, by Marilynne Robinson

a review by Rich Horton

Home is Marilynne Robinson's third novel. Her first, Housekeeping, appeared in 1980, and it was to be 24 years before she produced another, Gilead (2004). She was a teacher at the University of Iowa's famous Program in Creative Writing (which has produced such famous writers as Joe Haldeman), and it would seem that she is a proponent of writing what you know. She grew up in Idaho, and Housekeeping is set in a small Idaho town that resembles her home town. And Gilead and Home are both set in a town in her current home of Iowa, and are much concerned with Protestantism, particularly Congregationalism and Presbyterianism -- and Robinson is quite notably a Congregationalist and also an admirer of John Calvin, founder of Reformed Protestantism, of which Presbyterianism is one of the most prominent contemporary US branches. [Her fourth, and to date latest, novel, Lila (2014), is also set in Gilead, just after the events of Gilead and Home.]

More to the point, those three novels are easily among my favorite three novels of the past three decades -- they are astonishing works, distinguished by quite remarkable prose (which to my ear differs quite a bit between the first novel and the much later second and third novels), and by truly acute and closely observed characterization.

Gilead, which won the Pulitzer Prize, is written from the point of view of John Ames, a Congregationalist minister in the small town of Gilead, Iowa. He has married late in life, and has a young son, and the novel is presented as a long letter to this son, written in the knowledge that the elder man's health is failing. It tells of the history of Gilead, particularly as embodied in Ames' grandfather, a vigorous abolitionist, and of Ames's life, and especially of his long friendship with fellow minister Robert Boughton, a Presbyterian. Boughton's particular trial is his "prodigal" son Jack, who at the time of Ames's writing his "letter" has come home after a 20 year absence.

Home is a direct companion to Gilead, covering exactly the same time frame, but from the point of view of the Boughton family. In particular, the book centers on three people: Robert Boughton himself, and two of his children, the just-returned Jack, and his youngest child, Glory, a pious and loyal woman of 38, who had been a teacher, but who has returned to Gilead after a terrible romantic disappointment: her long term fiance, she has finally learned, was in fact married the whole time, and was perhaps interested in Glory mainly for the money he sponged from her.

Glory is the viewpoint character. Her father is failing, her mother ten years dead, and so she must care for him. When Jack returns, she prepares to care for him as well, but he is full of a rueful pride, and insists on helping in his own way, while only slowly accepting her help, and even more slowly opening up (in a limited fashion) about the last 20 years of his life, and his particular torments. As portrayed here, Jack seems a basically good man, who throughout his life has struggled with, perhaps, a difficulty with conformity, in particular to societal norms and also to Christianity. Over the years he has clearly learned the Bible backwards and forwards, yet cannot profess belief. This perhaps is at the heart of his rift with his father. In a more worldly sense, Jack's reaction to stress seems to have been to turn to drink, and clearly for many of those 20 years away from Gilead he has been functionally alcoholic, and pushed for one reason or another to crimes sufficient that he spent some time in prison. He feels deeply that he has betrayed most of those close to him by his feelings and acts, yet he resents, I think, the obligation that that sense of betrayal seems to indicate.

Finally, Jack has apparently lived for several years with a woman named Della in St. Louis, a churchgoing woman, singer in a choir, daughter of a minister, and for much of this time he has been happy and well-behaved. But something has precipitated a rift here as well -- it's not quite clear exactly what, though we know that her father disapproves completely of the relationship.

All this is revealed in bits and pieces over several weeks of life in Gilead, Jack seeming to be improving in temperament as he repairs the family car and works on the property. Meanwhile Glory tries to make her own life in what are to her bitterly constricting circumstances. And their father is declining precipitously. Jack goes so far as to try to befriend John Ames, who is suspicious of him based on history, as well as John's wife and son.

The first two thirds or so of the novel are in a sense all careful setup, though quietly very involving throughout. Robinson builds as rigorous and intense a picture of the characters of her three central figures as I can recall in any novel, through close description, elegantly described conversation, and a window into Glory's thoughts. Then the final 100 or so pages are about as moving as any novel I've ever read. In a way very little happens -- it is remarkable how powerful such tiny events and clipped words become. There is an apparently harsh and pointed sermon by John Ames. A relapse by Jack. Bitter words from Robert Boughton -- followed by nearly complete physical collapse. A visit from Jack and Glory's older brother. A letter from Jack's lover Della. And a surprising visit -- and revelation -- to close the novel. (Though this revelation, probably guessable anyway, will be no surprise to readers of Gilead.)

It is hard for me to describe how powerful the last series of scenes are -- how Robinson arranges that words and sentences cut so deeply. It is a real example of novelistic power, in the purest naturalistic novel tradition. In a way the core of Home is no more than a long novelette -- but it would mean very little without the establishing work done in the first couple hundred pages. This is a magnificent novel. And Marilynne Robinson is a great writer -- I urge those who haven't to seek out Gilead as well, and perhaps particularly Housekeeping, which despite the virtues of the two more recent books, may remain my favorite of her works.

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