Back at home, troubled siblings look for refuge
By Marilynne Robinson
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 325 pp., $25
While Marilynne's Robinson's new novel, "Home," is not a sequel, it does return to the same time period and Iowa small town of her Pulitzer Prize-winning "Gilead." But here, Rev. John Ames, the aging first-person narrator of "Gilead," is a minor character. The book instead focuses on the family of his longtime friend and fellow minister Robert Boughton.
Unlike "Gilead," which rides on the luminous wisdom and humility of Ames's quiet voice and intellect, "Home" is written in third person from the perspective of Boughton's daughter, Glory. She is 38 and has recently returned home to her ailing father after a long and painful engagement in which a married man "played her" for his economic benefit and then dumped her. This debacle leads to the end of her teaching career and leaves her profoundly lonely, insecure, and unhappy to be stuck back in Gilead. She tries to fit into the small-town life of gossip and gardening, and to believe in the God of her childhood, who, like her father, always had answers. But it's not working.
Her unexpected salvation, and the event that drives the novel, is the return of her ne'er-do-well alcoholic brother, Jack, to Gilead, after a 20-year absence. Glory last saw Jack when she was 16 and he had a reputation as the uncaring, unreliable son of the good Rev. Boughton. This cloud of trouble hovered over the Boughton family through Jack's adolescence, only to open into a raging storm when Jack, at 19, got an underage girl in a nearby town pregnant. The new mother and infant became the great worry and regret of Jack's parents, but the mother's family would not accept the Boughtons' offers to help. And Jack seemingly didn't care. Soon thereafter he left his family and Gilead.
This backstory underpins the tension of Jack's return to Gilead two decades later, in part because Glory was the only Boughton child privy to Jack's "troubles." She had visited Jack's daughter and the baby's mother with her father and remained confused and hurt by Jack's indifference. She also had tried to heal the deep grief that Jack caused their parents. When he left so long before, her last words to him were "Well, what is Papa going to do -" Jack's response lingers in the reader's mind throughout the book: "Do to me? Nothing. I mean, he's going to forgive me."
So now the two middle-aged siblings are thrown together in Gilead, a town they both associate with their own failure, in a modern tale of the prodigal son. But there is a twist. Though Jack does seem to return in search of forgiveness - from his father, from Ames, from his family, and from God - that is not what he finds. The book is less about the newly returned Jack's being forgiven than the recently returned Glory's forgiving Jack, and herself, and her family, and finding a new kind of hope in the process. As she and Jack care for their ailing father - as they feed and bathe and console him - they try to make sense of their broken lives, to find some meaning in all their suffering. Slowly they repair their relationship and in so doing find their way "home" in a way they never could as children. But it is not easy. It is not as if Glory "preferred the course her life had taken to the one she had imagined for it. But she did feel she had been rescued from the shame of mere defeat by the good she was able to do her brother."
For Glory "home" is less a place than a difficult journey. And sometimes it is a place along the journey - a "home" that she creates for her older brother and father. She often does this with food: "She wished it mattered more that the three of them loved one another. Or mattered less, since guilt and disappointment seemed to batten on love. Her father and brother were both laid low by grief, as if it were a sickness, and she had nothing better to offer them than chicken and dumplings. But the thought that she could speak to them in their weary sleep with the memory of comfort lifted her spirits a little. There was a nice young hen in the refrigerator, and there were carrots."
As this passage suggests, Glory is a reserved person, and this is a quiet and slowly paced book. But there are also many surprising turns and pivots in the plot line that ratchet up the tension. We learn that Jack spent time in prison, that he didn't attend his mother's funeral, and that his daughter has died. We learn that he has since married a black woman in St. Louis, that they have a son, and that he kindles an impossible hope (in Iowa in the 1950s) - that they might live together in Gilead.
Thus it is Jack and Glory's complex relationship, their delicately nuanced voices and silences, their fragile yet sustaining love, that form the thematic heart of the book. It is a heart that is often rhythmic, though sometimes labors desperately, or races blindly, before finally breaking open.
Tom Montgomery-Fate is a professor of English at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Ill., and the author of "Steady and Trembling: Art, Faith, and Family in an Uncertain World."