AS A jobless English grad, the current purpose of my life seems to be filling out applications while cursing my love affair with the liberal arts and judging what other people read. Last week, sitting for hours on end waiting for the phone to ring at yet another temporary reception job, I was transported out of my circumstances and reminded why I suffered four years of disappointing grade reports: I have the unemployable power of recognizing truly great writing. Marilynne Robinson’s latest novel, Home (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, $25) is a powerful reflection on the priceless things in life that cost everything and yield little reward.
A professor at the acclaimed Iowa Writers Workshop, Robinson is a confident author—evidenced by the twenty-four year gap between her first two novels—who writes out of love, not necessity. Prose and poetry critics who praised Robinson’s second novel, Gilead, only had to wait four years to begin the next wave of well-deserved adoration. Her sincere mastery of language is unmatched. Sentences are flawless; paragraphs rise and fall in beautiful waves.
Her latest novel shares Gilead’s setting and deals with similar themes of faith and family. Home focuses on the return of Reverend Robert Boughton’s children. Glory, the youngest child at thirty-eight, arrives to care for her dying father. Her older brother, the twenty-years-wayward Jack, later joins her.
The setting initially reflects the parable of the Prodigal Son, with Jack as the miserable, yet unchanging, penitent and Glory as the faithful sibling. But it shortly becomes evident that Glory has also returned with the taste of failure on her lips. While father and community focus on Jack’s return, Glory feels the weight of past and present. The old homestead is filled with sharp reminders of better days, from a frail and lonely father, to their mother’s overgrown garden, to the silent DeSoto stored in the barn. She admits to Jack: “I hate this town because it reminds me of when I was happy.”
Familial discussions are both tender and volatile. The endless grace the Reverend shows his son highlights the relational gaps between him and his daughter. He cannot help but love Jack more, despite his son’s shameful behavior. Jack attempts apologies, but his father forgives faults: “I never forget them. Hard as I try. They’re my life.” Robinson’s characters recognize that even the worst human errors, like sickness and disappointment, are to be endured out of love. Jack is at the center of everything unexplainable about family relationships, both real and fictional. “They were so afraid they would lose him, and then they had lost him, and that was the story of their family, no matter how warm and fruitful and robust it might have appeared to the outside world.”
Perhaps because she writes from a distinctly old-world frame of reference, Robinson avoids didactic temptations in her discussions of faith, prayer, and family relationships. The religious discussions are character initiated and driven; they are thought-provoking but not preachy. Upon his return, Jack admits his doubts and fights for belief. Glory still kneels to pray like she has since she was a little girl, and tears up at the slightest emotional situation, but cannot entirely explain either impulse. Biblical language affects everything in a nearly forgotten world of Gilead. Every object in the old Boughton homestead is saturated with the Reverend’s steady truth: “Weary or bitter or bewildered as we may be, God is faithful. He lets us wander so we will know what it means to come home.”
Reading Home is a return in itself, a visitation to the solemn simplicity only found in dwindling Midwestern towns and old bookstores. It is a novel which invites, rather than demands, personal reflection. It is a reminder that the settled soul accepts the past and is resigned to the future, no matter how bitter both may be. Glory describes this homecoming:
Home. What kinder place could there be on earth, and why did it seem to them all like exile? Oh, to be passing anonymously through an impersonal landscape! Oh, not to know every stump and stone, not to remember how the fields of Queen Anne’s lace figured in the childish happiness they had offered to their father’s hopes, God bless him.
It would be simpler for Glory to live out the rest of her life in a city of wishful thinking than in a humble town where even the kindest gossip rules every human interaction. The well-meaning citizens of Gilead will presume to know her, which is worse than not being know at all. Yet at the end of the novel, Glory is at peace; life is never as it is expected, but it is still good. “It may have been the saddest day of her life, one of the saddest of his. And yet, all in all, it wasn’t a bad day.”
Regardless of my future employment, as long as writers like Robinson are working away, my life will never simply be a humble temporary job. Even if I only get a couple pages at a time, Home is richer and more fulfilling than anything I’ll eat on my lunch break. And, as Groucho Marx probably said, “A career is just a job, but a good novel is a book.”
Emily Maynard, a recent graduate of Hillsdale College, lives in Portland.
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