There is a saying that to understand is to forgive, but that is an error, so Papa used to say. You must forgive in order to understand. Until you forgive, you defend yourself against the possibility of understanding.
In 2004, author Marilynne Robinson published the story of an elderly pastor in small town Iowa who is using the precious time left to him to record his memories and thoughts of his life. Gilead would go on to become a a Pulitzer Prize winner and touch the hearts of the thousands of people who read it. Four years later, Robinson took us back to Gilead, allowing us to see the story from a new point of view and to gain a new understanding of what it means to be home.
Home is companion novel to Gilead, and the events of both novels happen concurrently. After a failed relationship, Glory Boughton has returned home to Gilead to care for her elderly father. Not long after her arrival, they receive news that her brother Jack will be returning home for the first time in 20 years. Her father is overjoyed, yet Glory feels apprehension since Jack has been the wayward son all of his life.
Through the ensuing weeks, Jack and Glory both try to reconcile themselves to once again being in the home of their childhood. Glory feels a bitterness at finding herself back at her starting point with seemingly nothing to show for it. And Jack, who has never felt comfortable in his father's house, struggles with the consequences of his life's actions and the self-loathing he feels in his heart. As their father's life draws to a close, the Boughtons desperately strive to make some kind of connection with each other, and to accept the love and grace that is only found at home.
My Review (Caution-Spoilers):
Of the hundreds of books that I have read throughout my life, Robinson's Gilead stands out as one of the most beautiful and the most poignant. I was very excited to learn about this companion novel and was very interested to see how the story would look from a new perspective.
If Gilead is the story of the son who stayed and kept the faith, then this is the Prodigal's story. Though he grew up with loving parents and 7 siblings, Jack Boughton never feels like he is at home. From his childhood on, he upsets the peace and order of the Boughton home causing his parents no end of pain and sorrow. Jack is by no means proud of his past, and his return to the family home only increases his sorrow and self-deprecation. It is clear that he is searching for a way to connect with his family, but he is held back by himself. Like the rich young ruler of the New Testament, he refuses to relinquish the life he has to gain the life he desires. His family continuously extends love, grace, and friendship to him but his attachment to his lifestyle will not allow him to accept it. He is a prodigal who refuses to leave the mud he so desperately wants to forget.
More than just a portrait of a prodigal son, this novel is also a depiction of home itself. It is perhaps the one place in life that we dream of escaping while we are there and then dream of returning to when we are not. Robinson portrays home as that place that is at once deeply familiar and unchanging, and yet in many ways it is unfathomable. Here, home becomes aligned with the Christian faith, which is also unchanging yet unfathomable. It is a place where love and grace are always extended to the most undeserving. One need only accept it to receive it. In many ways, I feel that Rev. Ames' wife Lila is a portrait of this. Though we know very little of her back story, it is made clear that her own life was in many ways similar to Jack's. The difference being that she accepted the grace offered to her and allowed herself to truly be at home. It is she who best understand where Jack is coming from and encourages him to make the same choice she did.
While I appreciated many of the themes found in Home, I did not love it quite as much as I did Gilead. The mood in this one is much more sober and in some ways gloomy. While Gilead looks back on a life well-lived, Home looks back only at what might have been. And though Robinson's writing is as strong and powerful as before, it is missing the lyrical quality of Gilead that caused me to read passages over and over again. I also feel that I couldn't connect to this novel as much as to Gilead because in my own life I identify more with Rev. Ames' story than I do with Jack Boughton's, or even Glory's. My nature leads me to be the "son who stays" and thus that is where I find my connection.
Though both Home and Gilead operate as stand-alone novels, they really do complete each other and so I would recommend reading each. As with Gilead, this is not a novel for those who need lots of page-turning action. The whole story operates mostly within the confines of the Boughton home and there are very few actual events. If, however, you enjoy a quiet, thought-provoking, and well written novel, this is a good one.