Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

As anyone who has tried it can tell you, writing book reviews is hard. It is one thing to read a book and post a couple of sentences on why you liked it, another thing to capture in more detailed and insightful ways the books strengths and weaknesses; to communicate to a reader why they should or shouldn’t pick it up or help someone who has already read it understand it better.

I often ruminate on the challenge of writing reviews as a way to put off actually writing them! But I also think about it because, despite my love of reading, I rarely feel like I can produce something insightful or interesting about the books I read. Of course I take on this challenge regularly in this space. Whether I succeed or not I will leave up to the reader.

Why the longwinded rumination? Because Gilead by Marilynne Robinson presents a rather large challenge along these lines. How does one communicate the power of this work? How to both describe the book and attempt to illuminate its meaning? I feel like I need to read the book a couple more times before I could really capture its beauty and power. So I have decided to cheat a little and use other reviews to communicate what my reaction was to this unique work.


The best description of the basic premise of Gilead might be James Wood’s in the New York Times:

”Gilead” is set in 1956 in the small town of Gilead, Iowa, and is narrated by a 76-year-old pastor named John Ames, who has recently been told he has angina pectoris and believes he is facing imminent death. In this terminal spirit, he decides to write a long letter to his 7-year-old son, the fruit of a recent marriage to a much younger woman. This novel is that letter, set down in the easy, discontinuous form of a diary, mixing long and short entries, reminiscences, moral advice and so on.

Obviously Wood is a all-star in the book review world and this paragraph is an indication why. In what, three sentences he captures the plot and structure; gives the reader the basics so he can move on.

I know what you are thinking: this story line seems a bit dry. But that is what is so captivating about Gilead, Robinson takes these potentially mundane and dry subjects and settings and brings them alive. Emily Cook captures this in her review in Bookslut:

The description sounds a bit tedious. A Reverend, recounting his life? Recounting the lives of his father, the Reverend, and his Grandfather, also a Reverend? It is almost impossible to convey how perfectly brilliant this story is when the topic sounds utterly boring. Then again, this is precisely why Robinson is so good — she can take any lot of characters and make them interesting. The writing in Gilead is so lucid and exact, the story is so marvelously layered, that Robinson makes clergy life in a prairie town sound as fulfilling as Norman MacClean’s A River Runs Through It made fly fishing seem romantic.

Ah yes, the writing. Describing beautiful writing is not easy either is it? I mean you recognize it when you read it but how to communicate its power or insight without just quoting large chunks? Again, let me cheat by using others to try and communicate the effect Robinson has on readers:

Michael Dirda in the Washington Post:

. . . her new novel, which — let’s say this right now — is so serenely beautiful, and written in a prose so gravely measured and thoughtful, that one feels touched with grace just to read it.

– The aforementioned Wood in the NYT:

Nowadays, when so many writers are acclaimed as great stylists, it’s hard to make anyone notice when you praise a writer’s prose. There is, however, something remarkable about the writing in ”Gilead.” It’s not just a matter of writing well, although Robinson demonstrates that talent on every page . . . Robinson’s words have a spiritual force that’s very rare in contemporary fiction — what Ames means when he refers to ”grace as a sort of ecstatic fire that takes things down to essentials.”

Ron Charles in the Christian Science Monitor:

There are passages here of such profound, hard-won wisdom and spiritual insight that they make your own life seem richer.

Despite this heavy praise, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that the writing overcomes a boring or slow plot. So it is worth mentioning how Robinson weaves in a captivating mystery into the philosophical musings of the lead character. Just when the memories and feelings of the Reverend Ames might get bogged down, the tension and plot thickens as the lead character’s godson and namesake enters the story. John Ames “Jack” Boughton is the son of Ames’s best friend and fellow pastor; a sort of prodigal son figure, but one not yet fully – at least spiritually – returned. His reappearance is like a dark cloud entering the picture. The reader is never sure whether he provides a redemptive moment or a tragic one. This tension pushes the story forward while at the same time further illuminating the earlier themes: father and son relationships, the nature of forgiveness and grace, and the mystery of faith. For more on this mystery within the story see Ann Hulbert in Slate.

So, what to make of all this? Well, I hope I have captured the beauty and power of this remarkable novel. It really is a unique work in my mind. It is thought provoking and meditative. It is theological and literary. It is spare yet deep; deliberative yet filled with tension and mystery. Not to get into that whole genre versus literature thing, or into the thicket of literary theory, but to my humanistic mind this is what elevates writing to art. It uses fiction to explore truth. It uses created characters to illuminate abd better understand human nature. As others have noted, this is a book to read again and again over the years to mine its wisdom and appreciate its beauty. To echo Hulbert: you must read this book.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

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1 Comment

  • I knew Gilead would be this good, and you’ve written of it well, despite the quotes.

    I’m not a strong reviewer or writer myself, but I think if we are honest with ourselves and our words, avoiding pretense, we will write good reviews. Making them great reviews will take experience and skill.