January 22nd, 2013

Review: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

by Marilynne Robinson

John Ames became a father very late in life, and he doubts that he will live long enough to see his son into adulthood. So he begins to pen a lengthy letter to the man his child will grow into, sharing the wisdom and observations he has accumulated in his many years as a Congregationalist minister in the small Middle America town of Gilead. As he muses over the small beauty of daily life and his frustration with the son of one of his lifelong friends, Ames slowly unveils his family's rich history. The Ames men were three generations of preachers: his grandfather a staunch abolitionist who aided John Brown in his efforts and lost an eye during the American Civil War, his father a pacifist who struggled with his faith; and Ames, who lost his first wife and child when he was very young and spent decades living in lonely solitude before finding happiness with his second wife, Lila, and his tiny son.

This book packed quite the emotional punch for me. John Ames' writing is very similar to the way my grandfather spoke and thought, so reading his letter to his son was almost like hearing from my Grandpa again. (It helped that the actor reading the audiobook, Tim Jerome, has a similar speech pattern, although their voices quite different.) So I confess that my reaction to the book may be highly colored by the fact that I miss my grandfather.

One of the things I found most endearing about John Ames is his simple appreciation for everyday things. It seems as if virtually everything is a blessing to him, whether it be the simple friendship spotted as he passes two young men chatting at the side of the road or the natural beauty of the world around him. He delights in his wife, who while significantly younger than him lacks his education and doesn't seem to be a particular beauty, and of course he is enraptured with his son, and the love and affection Ames beams out is incredibly touching.

It's a very meandering book. Ames is constantly putting the letter down and taking it up again at a later time, and when he resumes it's often with a completely different topic. Heck, sometimes he switches direction practically mid-sentence. The result is that everything is revealed in fits and starts, in little puzzle pieces that the listener has to put together. His story unfolds at a very leisurely pace, befitting an old man who seems to be mentally “closing out his accounts” before moving on to the next world. He writes of his regrets that he didn't leave his family much to live on after his death, but that he desperately wants his son to understand that no matter what happens in his life, he was loved and a blessing to his aged father. It's a sweet, layered novel that reveals new things each time you read it. I'm not at all surprised that it won the Pulitzer!

5 out of 5 stars

To read more about Gilead, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.

Peeking into the archives...today in:
2012: All Clear by Connie Willis
2011: Closing down for end of the year Festivus...
2010: Seriously cool pop-up book!
2009: News: Libraries Gaining Popularity, But Straining Staff