Slowly but surely
Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 326 pp., $25
Unlike novels that delight in plot twists and structural play, Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Gilead” is seemingly straightforward and free of pyrotechnics. Instead, the novel takes its sweet, molasses-slow time, and in the process achieves depths of pathos and empathy rarely seen in contemporary fiction. What drives “Gilead” is the voice of its protagonist, the Rev. John Ames: his prose flexible and spare, steeped in Scripture and the writings of John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards. Yet Ames also has an abiding tenderness for the world; when he sees his son blowing soap bubbles, he describes one as floating “past my window, fat and wobbly and ripening toward that dragonfly blue they turn just before they burst.”
So little happens, in an outward sense, that Robinson barely divides “Gilead” into chapters. (There are two.) But events resonate so profoundly, they almost cannot be contained within the book. This is perhaps part of why Robinson has chosen to revisit certain scenes in her new novel, “Home,” this time writing from the perspective of Glory Boughton, one of “Gilead’s” minor characters. Yet this co-quel has a beauty all its own.
The catalyzing moment in both novels is the return of Glory’s older brother Jack to their hometown of Gilead, Iowa. Jack is the son of Ames’ best friend, Robert Boughton, Gilead’s Presbyterian minister. (Though Ames is a Congregationalist, their doctrinal differences seem friendly.) Jack is named for Ames -- who was, at the time of Jack’s birth, a young widower who might otherwise never have had a namesake -- but even as a child he was known to be a scoundrel and a thief. Glory recalls a childhood misdeed for which she and some of their other siblings had to apologize; she remembers that "[s]omewhere along the way Jack caught up and walked along with them, as if penance must always include him.” He disappears as a young man, cutting off all contact with his family and not even coming home for his mother’s funeral.
But after a 20-year silence, Jack Boughton returns. It is now 1957, and in the early pages of “Home” he appears “in the back porch, a thin man in a brown suit, tapping his hat against his pant leg as if he could not make up his mind whether to knock on the glass or turn the knob or simply to leave again.” He is civil to Glory -- who has recently come back to Gilead to care for their declining father -- but he divulges little about his life during his years away. Details bubble up despite his efforts to keep them down: He is sensitive to news about the racial strife in Montgomery, Ala., and when Glory takes one of his shirts off the line, she notices that it’s “spangled with stars and flowers, an elaborate embroidery of white on white from the cuff to the elbow, and one final flower near the shoulder” -- a detail that makes evident to her his involvement with an aesthetically minded woman. The novel’s plot -- rich and resonant, though its incidents are quiet -- tells the story of these long-estranged adult siblings carefully moving toward a degree of love and trust of each other.
One of the pleasures of reading “Home” is Robinson’s light touch with what readers may already know from a sojourn in “Gilead.” At that novel’s climax, Jack makes a confession to Ames about the unusual circumstances of his home life, but as the details about the civil rights movement and the embroidery show, Robinson only points toward this back story here. Someone who’s read “Gilead” will pay particular attention to such hints; but a reader unfamiliar with the earlier book will find Robinson’s allusions to Jack’s personal history subtle and deft. The author likewise treats Glory’s disappointments with a delicate hand.
As in “Gilead,” Robinson’s dignified prose delineates wonderfully vibrant, complex characters. Jack may be a ne’er-do-well, but he’s well educated: When, trying to make him feel more at home, Glory claims that “I wouldn’t care if you were a petty thief,” Jack’s smiling response is, “That’s very subjunctive of you.” Their father, a courtly minor player in “Gilead,” is here richly portrayed in his genteel dotage. We hear his optimism and pride and the cheerful cadence of his voice when he brightly tells Jack, “Yes! . . . I have never known it to be true that an educated man could not find work as a schoolteacher! There are more children every day! I notice them everywhere!”
Glory is thoroughly imbued with radiant singularity. A spinster English teacher, she feels herself somewhat peripheral. (It is a sign of the novel’s time and place and of Glory’s humility that at 38 she considers herself middle-aged.) Before Jack returns, she tends to her father and tidies, at relative ease with the mild tedium of her days: “Sometimes she listened to the radio, if there was an opera or a drama, or if she just wanted to hear a human voice. The big old radio grew warm and gave off an odor like rancid hair tonic. It reminded her of a nervous salesman.” The brave and sometimes cheerful resignation with which she views her current circumstances -- the same with which she views her life’s great sadness, the person she refers to only as the “fiance” -- combines with the well-chosen details of a vanished world (that radio; “molded salad,” a dish into which, “being a minister’s daughter,” she has the opportunity to stick her finger “any number of times”) to lend the story a powerful air of nostalgia tinged with regret.
Though Glory’s life experience might be considered limited, she is perceptive about her family and treats their quirks with a surprisingly sly sense of humor. Considering the Bough- ton habit of holding on to useless things, she thinks, “Other pious families gave away the things they did not need. Boughtons put them in the attic, as if to make an experiment of doing without them before they undertook some irreparable act of generosity.” There is a rueful goodwill in her view of the fusty interior of her family home, “the table and sideboard with their leonine legs and belligerently clawed feet, like some ill-considered, doily-infested species of which they were the last survivors.”
It’s also worth noting how different these two novels are from each other. “Gilead” is the novel of an old man, for whom Bleeding Kansas and the roughness of the frontier do not seem especially distant. Glory, by contrast, is born a generation later -- a generation about which she can rightly remark, “The girls in this family got named for theological abstractions and the boys got named for human beings.” Ames is so awake to the beauty in simple things (those soap bubbles; the sight of his wife and son playing together on the grass) one might almost call his rapturous sense of God’s presence in the world aestheticism, while Glory, an acute and articulate observer, sees things with that quiet, self-deprecating humor, one shade shy of despair.
The two volumes belong together because they complement each other in so many ways. They fit with and around each other perfectly, each complete on its own, yet enriching and enlivening the other. But both are books of such beauty and power that they ultimately beggar description. If I cannot do “Home” justice in describing it, I can, at least, commend it to you with my whole heart.