By Marilynne Robinson


“I can tell you this, that if I’d married some rosy dame and she had given me ten children and they had each given me ten grandchildren, I’d leave them all, on Christmas Eve, on the coldest night of the world, and walk a thousand miles just for the sight of your face, your mother’s face. And if I never found you, my comfort would be in that hope, which could not exist in the whole of Creation except in my heart and in the heart of the Lord. That is just a way of saying I could never thank God sufficiently for the splendor He has hidden from the world – your mother excepted, of course – and revealed to me in your sweetly ordinary face.” (p. 237)

The trouble is, I have never been any good at writing about love.

I’ve tried to write this review at least a dozen times now, beginning and re-beginning, deleting everything that I had written before and attempting again. I have adopted different stances, approached from different angles, in my attempt to talk about this book, but I can’t seem to find the words, to explain sufficiently what I felt when I read it.

And that’s because I’ve never been any good at writing about love.

Gilead‘ is a novel about love, a novel in the form of a letter from a dying father to his son. Ames is a preacher in Gilead, Iowa, the son and grandson of preachers. He is already an old man, a lonely, good man, when he meets and marries a much younger woman, who bears him a son at the age of seventy. When his son is seven, Ames is told that he, Ames, has angina pectoralis and will die within the year. Because he knows that he will never see his son grow up, because he knows that his son will probably not even remember him, Ames writes his son a letter, containing all the love and all the wisdom that he would have parceled out to him over the course of a normal lifetime.

I took a day off from work to read ‘Gilead‘. I began it late on a Monday night, and was pulled so quickly and so completely into it that I took off work on Tuesday and finished it. I have never done that before, missed work just to read.

I have cried while reading books before – it is (very) rare, but it happens. I can count the books which have wrung tears from me on one hand (it’s three*). I can recall, almost word for word, the single passage in each one which did it.

(*’A Primate’s Memoir‘, by Robert Sapolsky; ‘Moonfleet‘, by J. Meade Falkner; ‘The Story of Edgar Sawtelle‘, by David Wroblewski)

But no book has ever moved me the way this one has. I wept through, well, most of it. Wept actual tears: like, I sat in my comfy chair, in sweatpants and socks, with a box of tissues on hand, and actual tears ran down my actual face. I didn’t weep from from sadness, exactly, because ‘Gilead‘ isn’t a sad book. I wept from the disorientation that comes from being overwhelmed, from confusion, and from a tremendous longing to be happy.

Gilead‘ is a novel about happiness, and about goodness, and about God, but those words, ‘novel’, and ‘about’, are misleading. ‘Gilead’ resists concepts like plot (to the consternation of its detractors). It isn’t a story, per se – it is the examination of a life at its end. It is a window into one man’s heart, and the fact that the man has not technically ever existed does not mean that he is not real. Because he is now as real to me as any character I have ever encountered in print.

“I’d never have believed I’d see a wife of mine doting on a child of mine. It still amazes me every time I think of it. I’m writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you’ve done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle. You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem to you to be no great thing to have been the good child of an old man in a shabby little town you will no doubt leave behind. If only I had the words to tell you.” (p. 52)

My reaction, I should mention, is personal. I’m not the only person who loves this book, obviously – it won the Pulitzer – but a quick spin around the internet reveals the existence of an alienated minority who say things like, “the writing was very boring”; “I found this book dull and tedious”; “just really, really hated this book”; “no subject or plot or story or conclusion”; “I’m so glad that’s over”.

Marilynne Robinson

They aren’t wrong – Tom Clancy this is not. ‘Gilead‘ isn’t a sermon, exactly, but it is a meditation. A meditation on love, on whether true love of another and true love of God are both possible; on what it means to lead a good and virtuous life, on whether it is more important to be good or to be happy, on whether it is possible to be one and not the other; on what it means to love with humility, and what it means to die after having known joy.

If that sounds boring to you, please rest assured: I agree with you. It does sound boring. It sounds awful. I don’t think, if I had known what it was about, that I would have read it. And, despite having thought about it for weeks now, I’m still not sure why it isn’t boring. All I know is that, somehow, despite being about things which don’t really interest me (God, love, goodness, humility) and not at all about the things which do (sex, violence, zombies, epidemics, space battles, hyperinflation, sex, satanism, algorithms, time travel, sex), this book absolutely whuped my heart’s ass.

I know that this is insufficient. I know that I am failing, badly, to express how I feel. And I feel particularly terrible about it, about failing this particular book in this way, because the more a book moves you, the more you want to be moving about it. But I’ve never been good at talking about love, and that’s what this book made me feel. I’m not saying that I love this book – I’m saying that this book made me feel love. And I have thought about happiness, about how to live it, about how much I want it, every single day since I read it.

Some books are events in your life. Not many – only a few. Even people like me, maybe especially people like me, people for whom books are a life, even we don’t get many of these books. ‘Gilead‘ is one of my few. I have never been able to figure out whether there is rhyme or reason to which books reach out and grab you, but I suspect that there isn’t. I think, actually, that it’s just like love: in a long, lucky life, you’ll be side-swiped a few times, without reason, without warning. No way to defend yourself, no way to change back again into the person you were before you got hit. Nothing to do but pick yourself up and go back to work the next day, with puffy eyes, maybe a little wiser, a little better, but maybe not. Different, though, always different.

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