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26th March
written by Steph

In Edgar Allen Poe’s classic story “The Tell-Tale Heart”, the sound of a still beating heart represents the manifestation of a murderer’s guilt.  The rhythmic pounding riles and incites Poe’s narrator, ultimately driving him to confess his crime in order to gain a reprieve from his torment. However, not all heartbeats are torture.  To me, listening to Tony’s heart beating as we lie in bed at night is one of the most soothing and gentle sounds I know, lulling me softly into the arms of sleep.  The heartbeat is life’s soundtrack, and Gilead – an epistolary novel recounting a dying preacher’s thoughts on life – is like reading a heartbeat. I don’t think it is strictly true to say that Gilead is a narrative without a plot; there are specific stories that Reverend Ames wishes to share with his young son through his letter, but the action is quite fractured, often interrupted by long reflections on faith, family, love, forgiveness and life. The things that happened over the course of Ames’s life are important insofar as all of our experiences shape our present person.  But although such moments are frequent in novels, do real people often have a single moment that defines who they are, just one story to tell?  When looking back on your life, could you easily pick just a single thing as the most important event that transpired all the years that you lived?  Such clarity would probably make for a good story, but it alone might be the very basis of fiction. Regardless, although Gilead may not be the kind of narrative most readers are used to, it is a narrative.  We learn much about the men in the Ames family, starting with John’s grandfather.  John comes from a family of preachers, so he spends a lot of time discussing the many ways in which they have all struggled with issues of faith and applied God’s teachings to their own lives.  Another storyline that features quite prominently is John’s lifelong friendship with a fellow preacher and the difficult relationship John has developed with the man’s troubled son (happens to be named after John and is his godson).  We learn early on that John is very wary of his godson, but it takes most of the novel for us to learn why exactly this is. There are gentle books and then there is Gilead.  It’s a book you read for the language, for the atmosphere, for the ideas, hardly at all for the story.  The words of Robinson, cloaked in Ames’s persona, cocoon you with their depth of feeling and their insight.  The writing is like a sermon that aims to reveal the quiet pleasures that exist in the world around us.  A smile, a warm summer breeze, the scent of flowers floating through the night sky, iridescent soap bubbles ascending to heaven.  It is a pensive, reflective book that is heavy with the weight of many years lived.  There are regrets and losses expressed in its passages, but there is also hope and acceptance and many blessings too. Normally I would not be drawn to a book that is so clearly tied to religion, certainly not Christianity.  However, I felt that many of the philosophies espoused by Ames were universal in their appeal and applicability.  Concepts of forgiveness, redemption, love, decency, compassion and acceptance do not belong to any specific spiritual creed, in my opinion, and so I was completely able to relate to and connect with those elements of the story.  I do think the parts that were more specifically Christian were likely lost on me, and those bits did make for slower reading, but ultimately I felt this was a novel preaching tolerance, which is something I can get behind.  I didn’t feel like it was proselytizing or condescending, and it never felt judgmental (except when making points), so I appreciated that as well.  In fact, I felt like even though the book talks a lot about faith and belief, there was also a lot of discussion of considered debate and decisions – as much as Ames believes in the Gospel, he has spent a lot of time looking at the other side of the coin and seeing what weight it might carry, and again, that was a side of his faith that I welcomed as well. This is a fairly divisive book, since most people either love it to bits or find it the most boring slog they’ve ever endured.  For me, I feel I’m somewhere in the middle.  There were enough ideas to keep me reading, but I was never fully blown away by the writing.  It was solid and skilled, and yet it didn’t feel transcendental or luminous to me.  Nothing for me to complain about, it just didn’t have me clutching my chest as I was overcome by the beauty of Robinson’s writing or anything like that.  There was a clarity to the writing that I certainly respected, and I liked how Robinson’s writing felt like a contemplative lullaby. Still, when I was finished with Gilead, I felt like I wanted to be moved by it more than I really was.  I have a copy of Robinson’s first novel, Housekeeping, and I look forward to reading that, but I have no real desire to read Home, which focuses on the Boughton side of the story.  I felt like Gilead was complete and I just don’t feel the need to revisit these characers. All in all, an interesting reading experience, and I am glad that I’ve finally read this book (it’s certainly been sitting on the shelf long enough).  For me, it isn’t a favorite, and I’m grateful that I waited until I did to read it, as I was in just the right mood for it.  If you require lots of action in your books, this isn’t the novel for you.  It requires slow, careful reading, demands your full attention, and requires time to absorb the weight of its words. Rating: 3.5 out of 5


  1. 03/26/2010

    This is, as you may know, one of my all-time favorite novels, and I am glad you enjoyed it, even if it wasn’t a favorite. I think the reason it moved me so deeply is because of the discussions of faith and the way John Ames has so clearly thought through his beliefs in an deliberate way. And you could see how his theological thinking influenced his thoughts and feelings about the people around him. That just blew me away because I’ve found that discussions of faith in literature are so often simplistic (whether the perspective is for or against a particular faith). I liked the honest, serious engagement here.

    And it certainly doesn’t hurt that Robinson is a master of language. I still haven’t read Housekeeping because once I do I’ll have read all her fiction, and she takes her time between novels. I want to wait until I’m absolutely in the perfect mood for it. I’m not wasting that reading!

  2. 03/26/2010

    This was such a lovely review, Steph. I haven’t read this book yet, but I really did enjoy Home, and am looking forward to discovering a little bit more about Ames. I think that you described the feeling of Robinsin’s writing brilliantly and after reading this review I am anxious to try it out. I can see that this book is quite a bit different than Home, because it’s main character doesn’t sound as flawed and tortured as the Boughton’s are. Great review, I will be looking forward to this book!

  3. 03/26/2010

    A truly lovely review – and I love the bit about hearing Tony’s heartbeat (I have to see if Jim has one – frankly I suspect him of being an alien pod, especially when he helps empty the dishwasher) – but I am totally in the “boring slog” camp. Furthermore, I felt totally outraged that I had been “tricked” into reading the boring slog by the Pulitzer Prize designation. But as you say, it’s quite true some people love this book.

  4. […] Steph & Tony Investigate, reviews Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, a novel I enjoyed as well. She uses Edgar Allen Poe nicely as a jumping off point. Like Steph, it was not my favorite, but I do look forward to reading her most revered work, […]

  5. I didn’t like this book at all! I love the way you say “There are gentle books and then there is Gilead.” I think that sums it up well – this book is so gentle that it is almost static. At least I managed to make ot to the end, which is more than I can say for Home!

  6. 03/28/2010

    I love what you said about tolerance and the ideology here being mostly universal. I’ve been meaning to read this book for some time (I’m slowly but surely making my way through the Pulitzer winners), and I was a little bit worried that I wouldn’t be able to relate to it because it’s so tied to Christianity. Not that I’d refuse to read it for that reason, but I wondered if it wouldn’t go completely over my head. I’m glad to hear that there’s enough here to appeal to everyone.

  7. Lovely opening paragraph (I love “The Tell-Tale Heart”)! I don’t fancy the book at all, I have to say, but I appreciate your thoughts as always.

  8. 03/28/2010

    Excellent review. I confess that Robinson and I won’t be meeting anytime soon, but I always love how the people whose thinking I respect talk about her work. I remember Nick Hornby urging everyone to read her–all the while admitting that she would be a difficult read–when he was still with The Believer.

    Maybe Housekeeping? Then again, maybe not? Robinson intimidates me, yes. :]

  9. 03/28/2010

    When you mention the single event in life that transpires all the years one lived, my first thought went to The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. Fate has it that I might not be reading this any time soon. Every time when my curiosity has grown to a point that I would just plunge right in, I read a review by a trusted book blogger like you that changes my opinion. I’ve been thinking of this book for a long time; but I’m not ready to read a book of which the writing is not illuminating. This book has to wait.

  10. 03/29/2010

    @ Teresa: I didn’t know that this was one of your favorite books, but I based on the reasons you mention, I could see why you’d like it so much! I also really appreciated the careful consideration that was apparent behind Ames’s faith.
    And yes, I completely understand about feeling the need to hold off on a much beloved author when their back-catalogue isn’t prolific! I have a few authors with whom I feel the need to space out my reads.
    @ zibilee: If you loved Home then I do think you’d probably like this one a good deal, since I think the approaches are probably quite similar between the two. Then again, some of the tension might be dissipated slightly because you already know a good deal about Boughton, and much of the mystery in Gilead revolves around him.
    @ rhapsody: I laughed at your aside about Jim’s heartbeat! Thankfully Tony is a pro when it comes to household chores! 😉
    I absolutely see why some people would not care for this book at all, and there were parts that were tough for me as well, but there were things I thought were admirable and made the read worthwhile. But would so many people tackle this one if not for the Pulitzer designation? Probably not!
    @ Jackie: I am not at all surprised to hear that this wasn’t your kind of book! In fact, I thought of you a bit when I read it, because of how much it wasn’t a “Jackie” book! 😉

  11. 03/29/2010

    @ Nymeth: I was also concerned about the universality of this text, knowing that it was religious in nature as I went into it, so I was really relieved to find many themes and ideas that would appeal to any reader regardless of faith. There were parts and references that I’m sure I didn’t fully appreciate/get because I don’t have in-depth knowledge of the Bible, but these moments were not as frequent as I had feared.
    @ Claire: It’s funny how the thought of The Tell-Tale Heart popped into my head when I thought of how to start the review, but I think it works!
    @ Sasha: I think Housekeeping might be a little more accessible in its style and content, but I can’t say as I haven’t read it. I had picked it up because I wanted to try Robinson and wasn’t entirely convinced I’d make it through Gilead! Obviously I did, but I’ll still read Housekeeping someday anyhow!
    @ Matt: I think I personally see The Remains of the Day being a story of many moments rather than a single moment, and in that way, I do think it has some similarities to Gilead. Oh, and just to clarify, I don’t think you’d find much at fault with the prose in this novel, but for me, so much had been made of it that I was expected to be really wowed, and I wasn’t blown away. It’s very good writing, but it didn’t change my life is all.

  12. 03/29/2010

    I’m one of the ones who really loved this book. I liked how quietly wise it was. I agree that while it is about Christianity, it’s not off-putting or alienating for non-Christians — or at least it wasn’t for me.

  13. 04/01/2010

    @ Dorothy: I really appreciated the all-encompassing nature of the book, but probably it would be lost on people who have no interest in religious/philosophical discussions whatsoever.

  14. 04/03/2010

    Good prose but not wowed, this is a tough decision. I’ll put it on the list then. 🙂

  15. 04/08/2010

    A lovely review Steph. I really couldn’t read this book though – I’ve tried twice, but it’s not for me.

  16. 04/09/2010

    @ Annabel: I think I hit this book at exactly the right time. I was in the mood for a quiet dirge-like book, and so it worked for me. But I think it’s a difficult book for most, and completely see why it would not work for everyone.

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