I read Marilynne Robinson ‘s Gilead late last fall, not having heard of Marilynne Robinson before, and I liked it so much that I then checked out Housekeeping from the library. I found the latter to be quite different from Gilead. I supposed that is not a surprise, since, as was just brought to my attention by Wikipedia, the latter was written 25 years later. But we’ll return to Housekeeping in a moment. I liked the pace of Gilead, although some of my friends found it slow. The tone and concept–an elderly minister writing his memoirs in the form of a letter to his young son–were compelling enough to keep me going, but it does take a bit of perseverance not to get bogged down in the first few chapters.I didn’t realize until the final section of the book that this novel was, if not primarily at least to a great extent, about race relations. Again, perhaps I’m just slow on the pick-up, but I liked what seemed to be a deliberate technique by the author. By delaying the revelation of significant facts until the end, Robinson ties together a number of passages that previously seemed rather random and disconnected (like stories about an abolitionist town). This “aha!” experience made me want to read the book again (which I haven’t done yet; maybe I can convince my husband to read it with me). The delay also enables the author to bring up an important issue without either preaching at the readers or merely being trite.
I liked the juxtaposition of the two John Ameses, and the role that the elder played in the life of the younger. At first the discussion of baptism seemed irrelevant, but that was another theme that fell together for me with the farewell benediction at the end of the book. (I won’t go into detail in order to avoid giving too much away, but if anyone wants to discuss this further, I would enjoy doing so.) Although the book is a letter to the elder Ames’s son, it is just as much about his relationship with the younger John Ames, in a sense his spiritual son.
Housekeeping, as I indicated above, was much different from what I expected. The prose is lyrical and compelling, but it has a dream-like quality that I found rather disconcerting. When I put the book down I felt as if I were coming up for air from an underwater scene. This tone accords with the story line that, for me, raised the question of reality–what is normal? Who is truly “sane”? The narrator’s spinster aunt is most definitely odd, but as the book goes along, we get the impression that the narrator is actually more like her aunt and that the sister, in some ways the antagonist, is more like you and me. I suppose that is making assumptions about “you,” but I could certainly see myself reacting, in certain instances, the way the sister did to the idiosyncracies of her family members. Nevertheless, because Ruthie is a sympathetic protagonist, in spite of her eccentricities, the narrative calls into question the “normal” view of reality. The book seemed somewhat dark to me, but worth reading, as long as you’re not expecting another Gilead. It occurs to me that both books deal with death, but in very different ways.
Click here for a list of in-depth reviews of Gilead in major online media: “ReviewsofBooks.com”
Click here for an review by Marilynne Robinson of a 2006 book by Richard Dawkins: The God Delusion