Readers familiar with Marilynne Robinson’s 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead will already know the central plot of her new novel, Home. What’s more, they’ll know before opening the book most of the back story and many of the secrets, fears, disappointments and, in their way, the graces that have shaped the lives of the two Iowan families depicted in these books.
To be fair, readers familiar with the parable of the prodigal son will have a good sense of all this, as well.
Rather than writing a true sequel, as a follow up to Gilead, Robinson has given us an independent, concurrent story from the household of another dying minister, Reverend Robert Boughton, through the eyes of his daughter, Glory.
Rest assured, calling Home a follow up is no criticism. In writing this deeply religious novel, Robinson reminds us that in a religious sense, what makes stories important is their retelling. They can be seen and heard again and grow more meaningful each time.
This is an apt lesson to take from a novel about Christian pastors, men charged with making meaning of essentially one story their entire life.
The joy of reading Robinson this time around—and it is a great joy, even more so than the marvelous Gilead—is not to be found so much in a singular, poignant meditation on what a life lived can ultimately mean or even in the surprising revelations of fact that so often keep us turning pages.
To be sure, these kinds of joys exist in the book—especially for those coming to Home without having first read Gilead. What keeps the reader turning the pages of Home is its insight and patience, its willingness to wander once again through the same small town in the middle of the country, to knock about an ugly house “too tall for the neighborhood, with a flat face and a flattened roof and peaked brows over the windows” long enough to see “a beauty that would not be apparent to every eye.”
The set up is fairly simple. Glory Boughton, recently jilted and robbed by a fiancé, returns home to care for her dying father in his last days. Her prodigal brother, Jack, an alcoholic whose back story accounts for most of the secrets, fears, and disappointments at the heart of the novel, also returns after twenty years away.
What transpires is little more than a series of difficult conversations among the Boughtons over meals and board games: Glory’s reflections on the past—both her own and her brother’s—and efforts to reconcile, awkward silences and stiff apologies, forced prayers, painful thoughts and tousled hair.
Jack helps Glory with the gardening and fixes a car. They take their father out for a meandering and ill-considered ride through Gilead. At every turn, their common history haunts them. Where Jack is concerned, even the present does. Perhaps especially.
What this all amounts to is people looking to each other to be saved from themselves, and as we all know, few things make us more vulnerable. The characters at the center of Home reveal that family can be a painful, often lonely place. Glory recalls “certain moments in which she could see that Jack had withdrawn from her and was looking through or beyond her, making some new appraisal of her trustworthiness.”
In Gilead, their neighbor Reverend John Ames feels much the same way: “These people who can see right through you never quite do you justice, because they never give you credit for the effort you’re making to be better than you actually are, which is difficult and well meant and deserving of some little notice.”
Glory, like Ames, is weary. Even as the novel opens her heart sinks at the thought of being home again — at the thought of being seen and seen through again: “A lonely school-girl at thirty-eight. Now, there was a painful thought.”
Still, as C.S. Lewis points out in The Abolition of Man, “You cannot go on seeing through things forever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it.” With this admonition, Lewis seems to believe that we wield our own insight. While he’s probably right, Robinson sees it a little differently. Through all the retracing and retelling of Home, insight seems to be one with God’s grace.
What Robinson knows — and what Glory learns — is that by living these moments again, really being forced to see something through the “weary or bitter or bewildered” helps us discover that God is faithful.
“He lets us wander,” Glory comes to understand, “so we will all know what it means to come home.”