Review: Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

I’m writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you’ve done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle. You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem to you to be no great thing to have been the good child of an old man in a shabby little town you will no doubt leave behind. If only I had the words to tell you. (p. 52)

John Ames is a Congregationalist minister living in Gilead, a small Iowa town.  Late in life, he was blessed with a wife and son.  Now, aware that his heart is failing, he begins writing a long letter to his son, to be read when the son comes of age.  Gilead is that letter.  In it Ames tells his life story, shares hopes and dreams for his wife and son, and explores matters of faith.

Ames was himself the son of a preacher.  Through his writings he tries to come to terms with his strained relationship with his father, now long dead.  He mourns his first wife and child, both of whom died too soon, and he rejoices in having found love at an advanced age.  But there is one matter that weighs heavily on Ames, and his letter serves as a sort of catharsis.

Ames’ best friend is a Presbyterian minister, Robert Boughton.  The two have spent years leading Gilead’s faithful, and  developed a deep and lasting friendship.  Boughton had several children; Jack, the black sheep of the family, was named after Ames.  When Jack Boughton returns to Gilead after a long absence, Ames must face long-suppressed emotion and conflict, and accept his inability to control events after he has passed on.

This is a magnificent novel.  The pace is leisurely and conversational, initially masquerading as an amusing portrait of small-town religious life, full of little details like the bizarre Jello salad concoctions served at church suppers.  But Gilead is so much more: it is a celebration of life, love, friendship, fathers, sons, and forgiveness.

Marilynne Robinson followed Gilead with Home, which presents the same story from the Boughton family’s perspective.  Each book stands on its own, and is beautiful and moving.  But the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  The richness and depth of this story become apparent on reading both books.  These are not to be missed.

Read my review of Home
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13 thoughts on “Review: Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

  1. Well, I knew it might happen someday – that we would completely disagree on a book. And this one is it! I think I gave this a 2 star rating 😦

    • Oh my goodness! I can’t believe it! Of course the first thing I did was visit your blog and search for the review. One of your old posts says you gave it 2.5 stars, but it must have been before you started writing reviews. Someday we’ll have to compare notes !

      • Yes, it was before I started writing reviews. I read it for a Yahoo book club and I just found it SO slow and actually boring. I almost didn’t finish it. It is one of those really meditative books, and maybe I was just not in the mood.

  2. I picked this up at the library book sale last summer… wonder if my opinion will be closer to yours or Wendy’s 🙂
    Thanks for the review.

    • Well JoAnn, this does seem to be a “love it or hate it” book — I’ve seen opinions ranging all over the map. I’ll be interested to hear what you think!

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