Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead Books

November 30, 2014

Over the past month or so I’ve sped through Marilynne Robinson’s trilogy of books set in Gilead, Iowa (I’m calling it a trilogy here because there are three of them and they are connected. This is not a trilogy in the standard sense though).

Robinson won the Pulitzer (2005) for Gilead (as well as a bunch of other awards) and it’s not at all hard to see why. It takes the form of a journal or letter that John Ames, an aging minister in Gilead, is writing to his young son. Ames recounts stories from his life, stories about his family, and of growing up in a family of ministers, and weaves them together with pieces of wisdom — trying to leave some semblance of information and guiding faith for his son after he is gone.

Now I am not a religious person. And, were I religious, I would be the “wrong” religion for this book. And yet I still felt that it spoke to me on a deep and personal level. Gilead is a book of quiet contemplation. Faith is an important part, but it felt like less of a faith in a Christian God (though there are passages from the Bible) and more of a belief in being and doing good.

Home is the second of the Gilead books and it focuses of the happenings at the Boughton (Ames’s lifelong friend — a Presbyterian pastor) household. At age 30, Glory Boughton has returned to her childhood home to take care of her ailing father. Her brother, Jack — the prodigal son, absent for 20 years — returns to the old house as well and both try to make peace with painful pasts.

This book is, again; fantastic. The minutia of the characters’ interactions (and how the information gained adds to what the reader knows from Gilead) is superb.

While Gilead and Home take place (mostly) simultaneously, much of Lila takes place much earlier. This book exposes the motivations and inner thoughts of Lila — Ames’s younger wife.

I must confess that I liked this book the least of the three — though it’s possible that this is due in part to the fact that the voice is incredibly different (almost jarringly so). Lila lives a rough life before she meets and marries Ames — a fact that is hinted at, but never fully revealed in earlier books. Gilead and Home are quiet and internal. Lila focuses a great deal on trust — both her trust of others and their trust of her. There are more characters who feature in this book and influence Lila’s life in various ways. It’s not that she doesn’t have agency — she takes control often enough — but she doesn’t seem to recognize her own role in things.

As previously mentioned, I read these in pretty quick succession, so I’ll be interested to see if my feelings change about Lila if/when I read it with more distance from the other narratives.

I can see how Robinson’s style might not be for everyone. These books are pretty much entirely character-driven, so for those who with little patience for stories where “nothing happens,” you might want to skip these. Her prose is amazing though, and though this isn’t fantasy or scifi, it almost feels like world-building in a weird way in that readers get such a nuanced look into the lives of these characters.

Lila came out in October, and you can really start with any of these since it isn’t a trilogy/series in the traditional sense. I tend to think that reading them in the order they were released (Gilead, then Home, then Lila) reveals and builds on information in a fascinating way, but it’s really personal preference. Honestly, whichever one you can get your hands on is the one you should start with.


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