Summary: An imperfect prodigal returns home to an imperfect father.
Pretty much any time I hear someone answer the question, who is the best Christian author writing fiction that is not marketed as ‘Christian Fiction’, Marilynne Robinson is usually listed in the top 10. I am glad we have a category called ‘Christian Fiction’. But I mostly do not read it. Not because all of it is bad, but because so much of it is formulaic.
I first read Gilead, the first of this loose trilogy in 2012 and again in 2015. Lila, the third book in the trilogy, I read twice in the space of three months at the end of 2014 and then again in early 2015, just before reading Gilead a second time. I have been reluctant to read Home for a couple reasons. First, it means that I have read all four of Robinson’s books of fiction. And I wanted to have something to look forward to. Second, there were a lot of negative reviews of Home in Audible for the quality of the audiobook. And I have liked Robinson’s books in audio.
But Robinson has hinted that she will publish another book of fiction. And I eventually just borrowed the audiobook from the library so I didn’t have to be disappointed in the audio. In the end I was not disappointed in the audiobook. The narrator was Maggi-Meg Reed, who seems quite familiar.
The three books of the trilogy are told from the perspective of three different people with overlapping timelines and shared events told from different perspectives. I was predisposed to dislike Jack, the subject (but not the narrator) of Home because of the negative impression of John Ames, the subject and narrator of Gilead. Jack is a more sympathetic character in Home, although certainly not innocent.
I am not sure whether this was really the intention, but this felt like a broken retelling of the story of the prodigal son. Rev Boughton, John Ames’ best friend is the father of eight children and near the end of his life. His prodigal son and oldest child, Jack, has been gone for 20 years, but comes back home. Glory, the baby, after a failed relationship has returned to the town of Gilead to care for her father and heal her own wounds.
This threesome, the not all that gracious father, who really does want his son to return, the sister who has stayed at home and been diligent and will inherit the home, but isn’t sure she wants a life in Gilead is an imperfect older brother. And then Jack, the prodigal, who returns, but hasn’t fully come to the end of his rope and while he wants his father’s blessing and love, he also does not want to cause additional pain and so has a hard time accepting any forgiveness, in part because his imperfect father is not quite able to fully give it.
This is a human family and not the parable, or the actual God the Father who does fully forgive us and desire for us to return to him. But the imperfection both provides good literature and an exploration of what it means to be human and imperfect and compares that to a God who is perfect and forgiving.
I am not going to give any additional details about the story away. But this is not an action story. This is a story about people and ideas. There is a plot to the book, and the book is more than just a vehicle for the discussion of ideas. But this is NOT an action book. None of Robinson’s books are about the action. In many ways they are anti-action books. The whole points of these books seems to be to revel in the long sweep of rural life where things are not happening.
Robinson knows how to write. So as a reader, I am never bored with the lack of action. But more importantly, Robinson never forces a too neat conclusion to the conflicts within her books. The problem of evil is never solved. The questions around election are not too simply answered. The grace of God is revealed, but the question of why God’s grace seems to appear for you, but not someone else is not glossed over.
I did not read these in order. And now that I am done I can sort of see the purpose in the order. My favorite is the third, Lila. Her story is one of grace. Gilead is the life story of a preacher and in some ways his whole family, committed to their life in place. Home is in that arc. But it is the shortest of the stories. While referencing a whole lifetime, the main story is only a few months long. It feels tragic from the start, in ways that are not true of Gilead and Lila. If you have read either Gilead or Lila, you have the rough outline of the story of Home already. But Gilead is tragic in the way that a long life, well lived is tragic, because even a well lived life still wants more. And Lila is tragic in the way that historic sin, even when forgiven and grace given still has an impact. But Home is tragic both because of the ending is the natural conclusion of what has come before and because of possible redemption is always in sight.
Home is every bit as well written and necessary in its story as the other two. But I am not sure I will revisit it as I have the other two. I am planning on re-reading Lila yet again soon. which probably will lead me to want to re-read Gilead again. But will I feel a similar pull to re-read Home? I am not sure.