by Marilynne Robinson
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

Does this story sound familiar? The year is 1956, and a minister in Gilead,
Iowa is in failing health, and any day might be his last. Although he has led
a simple, decent life, he is beset by worries about
what will happen to his family after his passing,
and is especially concerned about the fate of his

If you read Marilynne Robinson’s 2004 novel
winner of the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, you will
recognize this plot. But here is the surprise:
Robinson relies on the same story for her new
Home. No, this is not a sequel or a pre-quel:
perhaps one could call it an ‘e-quel’ since
Home is
more or less equal to Gilead. It is the exact same
story from her previous book, retold from a
different perspective.

This is an unusual approach, although not completely without precedent.
Lawrence Durrell attempted something similar in
The Alexandria Quartet,
while Raymond Queneau retold the same story over and over again—99
times, to be precise—in his
Exercises in Style. Even so, Robinson will
surprise most of her readers by returning to the very narrow focus of
Gilead, and relying on the same settings, characters and incidents. Even
some of the specific scenes and conversations are almost identical.

Yet Robinson succeeds in finding new themes and meanings in the same old
events. The dying minister in
Gilead was John Ames, while in Home it is Ames’
s lifelong friend Robert Boughton. Boughton’s son Jack has returned after
being away for twenty years. He wants to reconcile with his father, yet his
life and values may be incompatible with the minister’s. His troubled and
often irresponsible past is not likely to find forgiveness in the community,
and perhaps not even in his home. In his present situation, he even feels
he needs to hide from his family the personal circumstances that brought
him back to Gilead.

Readers will inevitably be reminded of the parable of the prodigal son, but
here Robinson shows the troubles and complications that are left out of the
Bible story. Here is the tale of what happens after the prodigal son comes
home. In short, we learn that killing the fatted calf does not resolve all of
the frictions and uncertainties created when a family is split asunder.

The most fascinating moments of this novel come when Robinson takes
situations from Gilead and gives them a new emotional valence and moral
resonance. Jack Boughton’s long-standing adversary, Reverend Ames, was
the hero of
Gilead, and his Christian virtues almost glistened off the page in
that book. Yet in
Home, Ames comes across as a crotchety, unforgiving old
man, and his unwillingness to take action is a major contributor to the
miseries in the household of his long-time friend. One can’t help but be
impressed by Robinson’s ability to construct such radically different
perspectives from the simple facts of her twice-told tale.

Yet, in the final analysis,
Home falls short of its illustrious predecessor. This
book is not as tightly written as her previous work. The reader must endure
at least two dozen conversations in
Home during which Jack Boughton is
evasive and says “Thank you” or “You are so kind” or “Yes, sir” or some
other equivalent statement—dead end dialogues that gets tiresome after
the tenth or twentieth repetition. The action of the book revolves around
Jack, our prodigal son. Yet, sad to say, no work and all play has made Jack
a dull boy—or at least a dull conversationalist.

The more interesting character here is Jack’s sister Glory, who constantly
vacillates between her desire to get closer to her brother and her
resentment against him for all his irresponsible behavior. Although the
novel is written in the third person, Glory is the only character whose
innermost thoughts are laid bare in Robinson’s narrative. But it is hard not
to compare Glory’s often superficial and instinctive response to events with
John Ames’s rich psychology as laid out in Gilead. The sister of the prodigal
son, at least in this instance, does not make for a riveting character study.

What’s next for Robinson? Perhaps she will tackle the same events a third
time from one more perspective. If so, I suspect that her next version will
come from the angle of Ames’s deep but soft-spoken wife Lila, whose
mysterious past and motivations have yet to be probed in these books. But
will the city of Gilead prove to be for Robinson what the Glass family was for
J.D. Salinger—a source of inspiration that becomes a cul-de-sac, blocking
out all other perspectives and types of narrative? Or will Gilead, Iowa prove
to be more like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, a setting where many
different stories can flourish?

Then again, this novelist might just keep us guessing; after all, she left us
waiting almost a quarter of a century between her first and second novels.
Time will tell, but certainly Robinson has piqued my curiosity about where
she goes from here.

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