Once in a long while comes a book that moves you so deeply, it takes you apart. It is a revelation in the beauty of its prose, the vividness of its characters, the clarity it allows into the human condition. When you read a book like this, the furniture of your mind is rearranged, and you feel unsettled for days, moving tentatively until you’re sure of yourself again, as if an earthquake has shaken your heart. My list of these books is short and highly idiosyncratic; I wouldn’t expect anyone else to share them. But adding another to the list is a joy so great that it reminds me all over again why I read, why I share books with others, why I teach — in fact, why I am who I am. And Home, by Marilynne Robinson, is one of these books.
This novel has been tremendously popular, so I’m sure that by now you must be familiar with the general plot. Teresa also wrote a review toward the beginning of December that you can read here. I won’t bother with a detailed resumé, just remind you that the book deals primarily with three people, members of a family: Robert Boughton, the father, a loving Presbyterian minister grown old; Glory, his faithful daughter, come home to care for him in his last months; and Jack, his one wayward child, returned after years of hard living and unknown possible wickedness, to see his father one more time. During the course of the novel, what these three say to each other, and fail to say, and do for each other, and fail to do, is the heart of an exquisitely beautiful and painful novel about hard-earned grace, and the way it may be difficult to forgive those who trespass against us, but it can be even harder to forgive those we’ve trespassed against.
The parable of the prodigal son is, of course, foremost in the images Robinson uses to create her relationships. But imagine: the son, having done terrible things, things his father can have no understanding of, decides to come home. He has an idea of how things should be when he comes home: he’s unworthy and he knows what treatment he deserves, but he also knows what small things were good or dignified about his past, even in that hard life. The father, eager to forgive, has a different idea of how things should be. All will be forgiven; the past will be erased; the son will be loving and beloved and trust will be established as, perhaps, it never was before. How, in this situation of differing expectations and needs, can pain and disappointment be avoided? Robinson shows us the delicate dance: the father, straining to forgive; the son, wincing when he sees the need to be forgiven. And Glory, trying to create space, dignity, privacy for them both. I don’t mind admitting that I cried.
I’ve seen a few questions out there: do you need to be religious to enjoy this book? Honestly, I don’t know. The language of faith is so ingrained in me that I know the cadences of the voices and can hear the hymns Jack plays, so it’s hard for me to imagine not having those references. But literature is made for us to enter other frames of reference, other hearts, other minds — goodness knows I read enough nonreligious novels — and Robinson is never preachy or heavy-handed; she only shows us the hearts of people who believe. Do you need to be an American to understand it? I think it helps to know some American history — the terrible weight of race, the burden behind the quiet peace of 1950s Midwestern towns — but I don’t think it’s a prerequisite. Do you need to have read Gilead? No, although knowing one thing from Gilead makes Home even more poignant.
Most of all, I think this book is made for rejoicing the reader — and I do mean joy, despite the pain. This book, like Gilead, and more than any other I’ve read for years, creates a space where you can enter another life, seamlessly and with compassion. These characters will stay with me. This town exists. This is one of the loveliest and best novels I’ve ever read.