Passionate Presbyterians: Home, by Marilynne Robinson: a book discussion

February 8, 2009 at 5:20 pm (Book clubs, Book review, books, Spiritual)

home1 I wrote the following prior to Friday night’s book group discussion:

This is a profoundly frustrating novel. Marilynne Robinson’s writing is often graceful and elegant; she has a gift for the felicitous turn of phrase. But the plot of  Home is so slow moving as to be virtually static. And I confess – I am genuinely puzzled by these characters.

It is the middle of the twentieth century; the country is in the midst of the Civil Rights struggle. But the town of Gilead, Iowa, seems insulated from the cares and crises of the outside world. Instead, the novel focuses on the tribulations of the Boughton family. The Reverend Robert Boughton is old and ailing; his daughter Glory, in her late thirties and fleeing a recently aborted engagement, has returned to her childhood home in order to care for him. The two are soon joined by Glory’s older brother Jack.

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At that point I stopped, having decided that I would complete this post after we had discussed the book. I am now glad I made that decision.  The discussion was illuminating on many levels. Most importantly, I learned that my baffled response to Robinson’s characters was due to my ignorance of what life was like for many who grew up in small town America in the mid-twentieth century. I was bewildered by the intense, almost claustrophobic religiosity with which Robinson endows the Boughton household – the frequent, fervent recourse to prayer, the parsing of the finer points of scripture. I was reminded of the seventeenth century Puritans that I encountered in Salem Witch Judge, Eve La Plante’s biography of her ancestor Samuel Sewell. But for Nancy, our discussion leader, and several other group members, the author’s depiction of a mid-twentieth century minister’s family resonated powerfully.  They had experienced such a life themselves as children, either within their own families or in the families of friends or relations. This was particularly true if the family in question was headed by a minister.

Specific expectations governed the comportment of members of such families: in church, the wife and children were seated in the front pew, and all were expected to be presented and accounted for. Traveling clergymen were always welcomed as guests, and offered the hospitality of lodging and home cooking. Thus, Glory was performing the function that her late mother had in her turn performed. But poor, long suffering Glory, constantly producing those heavy, meat-and-potatoes heart-attack-on-a-plate meals that many of us recall fondly from the 1950’s – that is, if we lived to remember them! I couldn’t help but feel impatient at her automatic assumption of the role of handmaiden to the men of the house. If she wasn’t cooking, she was cleaning or mending.  She sets about these tasks in the spirit of mute acceptance. Oh, the sheer drudgery of it all! Group members patiently reminded me of the time and place in which the novel’s events were transpiring. But that fact did nothing to stem my annoyance at the situation. Oh, how I wanted Glory to rebel!

Then there is Jack, the prodigal son returned home. His checkered history includes impregnating a young woman and then deserting her (the child subsequently dies), theft, alcoholism, and a stint in prison. We are repeatedly reminded of his transgressions, often by the trangressor himself. Glory is forgiving; her powerful love for her brother overcomes any tendency to judge him. But for their father, forgiveness is more difficult to grant.  As a minister, he strove to be a  pillar of rectitude in their small community, but Jack’s waywardness had undermined his position and mortified him before his parishioners.

Unlike Glory, Jack did rebel. But in the context of Home, he does not come across as a bad person. On the contrary, he is extraordinarily helpful to Glory in the domestic sphere.  Where his father is concerned, his attitude is one of contrition. He frequently beseeches his father to forgive his behavior, both past and present. (Jack seems to need forgiveness  for his very existence.)  At one point, Reverend Boughton apologizes to his son for not being a sufficiently good parent to him. Jack assures him that to the contrary, he was a wonderful father. Glory too does her share of apologizing, especially to Jack for real or imagined acts of insensitivity. In this household, love apparently means having to say you’re sorry – over and over again. It grated, this constantly repeating cycle of apology and reassurance.

I found myself deeply grateful for the few lighthearted moments this novel afforded. Most of them had to do with the old De Soto that Jack is rehabbing:

“Again the starter and the engine, and after a minute or two the rattle and pop of gravel as the De Soto eased backward out of the barn. It gleamed darkyl and demurely, like a ripe plum. Its chrome was polished, hubcaps and grille, and the side walls of the tires were snowy white. There was a preposterous beauty in all that shine that made [Glory] laugh. Jack put his arm out the window, waving his hat like a visiting dignitary, backed into the street, and floated away, gentling the gleaming dirigible through the shadows of arching elm trees, light dropping on it through their leaves like confetti as it made its ceremonious passage. After a few minutes she heard a horn, and there were Jack and the De Soto going by the house. A few minutes more and they came back from the other direction, swung into the driveway, and idled there. Jack leaned across the front seat to open the passenger door. she walked across the lawn to the car and slid in.

Now that is a lovely scene, beautifully described. And I felt grateful for this small celebration of secular, everyday life!

Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson

gilead Marilynne Robinson published Gilead to critical acclaim in 2004. It won both the National Book Critics Circle  Award for Fiction in 2004 and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2005. The events of Gilead and Home take place more or less simulataneously; in fact, in her review of the latter for the Los Angeles Times, Emily Barton suggests calling the two novels “co-quels” (a rather tortured coinage, methinks). Gilead is slightly shorter than Home. Though I struggled, I got through it. I liked Home more, but only marginally so. By the time I was heading for the home stretch, I was feeling positively mutinous: I wanted Glory or Jack – or someone in that dull little burg – to do something truly reprehensible. Run off with the neighbor’s wife – or husband – or both! Or if not that, at least steal from the collection plate one Sunday.

(This perverse thought experiment is putting me in my mind of the lyrics to the song “Fie on Goodness” from the musical Camelot; in particular, the following lines: “Ah, but to spend a tortured evening staring at the floor / Guilty and alive once more.”)

As I wrote prior to our discussion, Home has so little in the way of a plot that it is virtually inert – more of an exercise in stasis than in storytelling. What plot there is concerns Jack’s efforts to win back Della Miles, the woman with whom he is currently in love. His errant behavior has caused her to reject him, now, his letters to her keep coming back unopened and marked “return to sender” (and doens’t that seem quaint in this era of e-mail, text messaging, etc.). Having grievously wronged a woman once, Jack is trying to do the right thing this time around, but once again, he may be too late.

I appreciate the virtues of this novel a good deal more since we had our discussion. Robinson’s writing can be lyrical in its precision. I have to agree with Nancy, who observed that “every word bears weight.” And I want to add one more thing: many of the contemporary novels that I’ve read recently falter at the end. In contrast, I thought the conclusion of Home was fitting, even beautiful. It contained an interesting revelation and the seeds of hope, and it made me want to put my arms around Glory and give her a hearty embrace.

Oh – and Nancy, the impromptu hymn  singing was delightful!

2 Comments

  1. kay said,

    I’m so relieved to find someone else –and a far more discerning reader than I — who dound “Home” a chore to read. I don’t mind working my way through a novel that is thoughtful, beautifully written, and preoccuppied with things spiritual. For that, I appreciated “Gilead.” However, the second novel, despite the marvelous character of Gloria, was just a bridge too far. Enough already!

  2. ‘Would I want to enclose myself in all that fabric for the rest of my life…’ – Unfinished Desires, by Gail Godwin « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] this reader. One question I’ve been pondering is why the presence of similar elements in  Marilynne Robinson’s fiction served to irritate rather than enthrall – again, for this reader. Perhaps it has something to […]

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