One of my book club friends proclaimed me, with soft pats at my back, the Champion of Marilynne Robinson. Why not? I have read all three of her novels, each of them garnering my 5-stars. I cannot do her novels injustice with the sheer act of weighing the quality of her novels. There should be no second thoughts–give all those stars.
And why should I rethink Robinson’s talent when she is the only writer I’ve ever read who can turn an ordinary set of words into a luminous prose powerful enough to create miracles? It somehow enrages me that only one of my book club friends has read her, but at least some are picking my recommendation. They have her books on their respective shelves. That gives me a sense of comfort, allowing me to be hopeful, that the good word about her writing will spread like a gentle breeze sweeping through the city.
Her last two novels, Gilead and Home, are novels that deal largely with theology, one of the subject matters that least interests me. And yet, I am drawn to them. I cannot forget how Reverend John Ames, in Gilead, smashed my heart into smithereens. He is back in Home, but this time, he no longer is the novel’s voice. This time, we relive the events in Gilead with the Boughtons. There is Reverend Robert Boughton, Ames’s lifelong friend; Glory, Boughton’s youngest daughter; and Jack, the prodigal son.
The old man said, “You take your time. But I want you to give me your hand now.” And he took Jack’s hand and moved it gently toward himself, so he could study the face Jack would have hidden from him. “Yes,” he said, “here you are.” He laid the hand against his chest. “You feel that heart in there? My life became your life, like lighting one candle from another. Isn’t that a mystery? I’ve thought about it many times. And yet you always did the opposite of what I hoped for, the exact opposite. So I tried no to hope for anything at all, except that we wouldn’t lose you. So of course we did. That was the one hope I couldn’t put aside.”
Home tells the stories of these three Boughton family members: Old Boughton at the fringes of his life thanks to his slow slip to senility, Glory at the onset of middle life crisis when her own family life has not even begun, and Jack at his long-awaited homecoming with a stash of secrets, a box of burdens.
Old Boughton is living at the charity of the kind townspeople of Gilead. He can no longer deliver sermons; he’s too old to do that. He has raised eight children, six of them happily married, one of them living with him. But the one he longs for the most is his black sheep, the one who could never feel at home, the child whom he thinks is filled with so much sadness, the one who has just arrived at the twilight of his years.
Glory walks around their house with an armful of memories regarding its familial grandeur back when she was still a child. Every room and furniture is familiar, only that everything in the house is old. This creates a sense of wonder in her for she feels a sort of unbelongingness, that after all these years, she might not have understood all the things around her. Her restlessness is further magnified by her fiance’s empty promises, but she quiets any resentment in her heart with a faith that has become as habitual to her as breathing.
Jack, in Gilead, is remembered by Old Ames as nothing but a trouble child: a thief, a drunkard, and yes, a man who has no sense of responsibility. But in Home, he is a man with a troubled heart. One scene that is accounted in both novels is when Jack asked his “sir” (Old Boughton) and his “papa” (Old Ames) regarding their thoughts on predestination. Being a man that has a bad reputation, one is expected to think that the question is asked out of spite, out of a desire to rouse anger in the weak hearts of the nearly dying men. But no. We do not see a mocking man. What we see is a man weighing his own case–is he a man consigned to perdition? Is he incapable of winning over the grace of our Lord?
The three reunite as Old Boughton carries the guilt for failing his son, as Jack holds the regret for shaming his father, and as Glory sustains her relationship with her father and builds one with her brother. It is true; this novel will wring every tear from your eyes. An event as simple as Jack’s haircut, done by Glory, holds so many emotions. The two are still on that phase where they are discovering each other’s thoughts despite their ages. They have so much to learn. Years of distance has spaced them further apart, and that distance we have to add to the existing gap caused by Jack’s fierce childhood solitude.
So I have raved on and on about the situation of each Boughton, and yet, what makes this novel so deserving of a gushing admiration? I admitted, there is nothing physically happening in the novel. The only movements are the dishwashing and gardening chores of the two siblings, the suppers and dinners, and their talks about the past and the present, if talking can be considered a physical event.
And that is exactly it. Reading this is like coming home to your grandmother’s house, in this case Robinson. It is a novel about lifelong friendships and the power of families. It is filled with the torments of regret and of failure. Its thoughts are both subtle and provocative, scathing and healing, graceful and unforgiving. All these are from the seemingly effortless writing of Robinson.
Rereading my humble contribution as a Champion of Marilynne Robinson makes me realize that I have barely uncovered Home’s luster. I always find myself incapable of giving justice to great novels like this and Gilead, but isn’t that always the case? Just reliving the images that the novel created inside my head threaten to break my heart all over again. That alone is enough for readers to pick this up soon.