Friday, July 24, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Title: Gilead
Author: Marilynne Robinson
Publisher: Picador
Year: 2004
Reason for reading: Battle of the Prizes challenge

First line: "I told you last night that I might be gone sometime, and you said, Where, and I said, To be with the Good Lord, and you said, Why, and I said, Because I'm old, and you said, I don't think you're old."

Gilead is an epistolary novel written by a Congregationalist minister to his young son. John Ames came to fatherhood rather late in life and regrets that he won't be able to watch his son grow to manhood. There are so many things he wants to tell the boy that can't be told to a six year old, and so he begins to write his letter in a journal.
"Your mother told you I'm writing your begats, and you seemed very pleased with the idea. Well, then. What should I record for you?"
As a minister who comes from a long line of minsters, John Ames is concerned with the human condition and the deeper things of the soul. There is much about the nature of love, friendship, faith and prayer in Gilead. Even the hard questions of Christianity are addressed as Jack, the son of John's lifelong friend, posits the philosophical query:
"Do you ever wonder why American Christianity seems to wait for the real thinking to be done elsewhere?"
John has kept pages and pages of sermons he has delivered over the years in which he "[tried] to say what was true." It is this pursuit of truth and personal integrity that seems to haunt John in his twilight years. The relationship between John and Jack has been strained for a very long time. These two men repeatedly attempt to understand each other and John feels deeply his failure, as both a minister and an elder, to comprehend and forgive the younger man. As John struggles to right this relationship, he reaffirms that redemption is neither simple nor easy.

The pace of the writing is very meditative and requires the reader to slow down and take up the tempo of an old man. While this was an effective device most of the time, I found my mind wandering far from the novel at other times. There are no chapter breaks, but there are "thought" breaks in which the author may pick up the same thread or shift to a new one. This format took a bit of getting used to, but once I adjusted it seemed appropriate for the teller of the story. The writing is spare and straightforward, which fits the setting and time -- a small prairie town of the 1950s populated by those who have seen much hardship.
"To me it seems rather Christlike to be unadorned as this place is, as little regarded."
Gilead is a beautifully written book that, at times, will take some work to read. I don't think that the religious tone of the book should disturb those who follow a faith other than Christianity or those who follow no faith at all. What the author truly addresses in her pages is the human condition of which we are all a part.

Gilead is my review of a Pulitzer Prize winner for The Battle of the Prizes reading challenge.

Note to other reviewers: If you've written a review for this book, please let me know by posting the permanent URL for your review in the comments. I'll be happy to add a link to your review with my post.

Also reviewed by:
hopeinbrazil at Worthwhile Books
Rose City Reader


  1. I just bought this last evening at the library book sale! Hope to get to it soon. Thanks for the review.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Super! I just posted a link to your review on the original challenge page and a progress report. Thanks for participating!

  4. Oh -- and sorry for the deleted post. Something goofy happened and I posted my comment before I was finished typing. Doh!

  5. What a lovely review. I enjoyed this book a few months ago and posted my thoughts here: book

  6. I'm doing the Pultizer Project and so this is on my list, but I've seen several mixed reviews and so I've been hesitant. I'll keep in mind that it requires work and pick the right moment, but I do want to read it.

  7. There's no number! How many points out of five does it get?

  8. I can kind of see why people like this book but mostly I can't. :P I think maybe for me it was just bad timing--I tried to read it on a roadtrip and was only able to read a few pages here and there. It was a little too slow for me, but then again I'm not a big fan of that quiet Midwestern style. Glad it mostly worked for you. Will you be reading Homecoming?

  9. I didn't read your review carefully because I need to read this book first, which I purchased years ago. My mother read it, from my shelf, and she said it reminded me so much of her father who was a pastor on the prairies of Canada. Thanks for reminding me to pick it up!

  10. JoAnn: Hope you enjoy it!

    Rose City Reader: No problem with the delete. I've done the same too!

    hopeinbrazil: Thanks for visiting! I've linked to your review.

    Nymeth and Trish: This book does indeed need to be read at the right time. I am so glad I didn't take it with me on vacation. It does seem to need longer periods of reading time and more focus than other books.

    Trish: While I'm glad I read Gilead, I haven't yet decided if I will read Homecoming or not.

    Mary-LUE: I purposely didn't give it a number here, but I did rate it 3.5 out of 5 on LibraryThing. The book doesn't really lend itself to a numbered rating system and my reasoning for 3.5 is pretty convoluted!

    Bellezza: I can't wait to read your thoughts on this one. I have enough of a background with small town churches that I could often relate. One of my favorites was the occasional church humor: "There was even a bean salad, which to me looked distinctly Presbyterian."

  11. I keep forgetting. Here is my review:

  12. I just finished this book and was looking for others' comments about it. I think you captured it wonderfully! Not sure I'd read Home either, and there were often times I couldn't figure out why I kept reading because it was SO slow, but I'm glad I finished it.

  13. verbatim: Thanks for stopping by! The slowness almost got me several times too.

  14. Hey! You're all grown up!

    Great pictures! But nothing is as cute as that little kid picture!