Marilynne Robinson’s popular and critically acclaimed novels, Gilead and Home are masterpieces that deftly explore deep metaphysical questions with characters who search for meaning and redemption through Christian faith, engaging with issues of spiritual longing and fulfillment in a way that few modern American authors do. Gilead and Home are really companion pieces that should be read together; at their combined heart, they paint an astounding portrait of grace in human existence: Gilead by displaying the utter beneficence of the grace that overflows creation and Home by portraying our human inability to enter this reality fully.
The novels focus on two ministers in the small country town of Gilead, Iowa, close friends since their childhood who are now approaching the end of their lives. Gilead takes the form of a long letter that the 76-year old Rev. John Ames composes to his young son born of a late marriage – about his lifelong faith, the complicated love between fathers and sons, and the return of his own best friend’s son to the town. Home revisits this same time and place, but from the perspective of Glory, a 38-year-old woman who has come home to take care of her dying father, the Rev. Robert Boughton. They are joined by Jack, the wayward son returning after twenty years of self-imposed exile from his family. From these differing angles, both novels engage with the profound narrative of the grace offered to the prodigal son.
Gilead boldly portrays the radical blessing conferred by grace; in incandescent prose, John Ames tells his story with the deepest conviction of the profound goodness of life, the need to bless all who have been graced to live, and his struggle to extend this grace in forgiveness to Jack Boughton. At the end of life, he is amazed by and thankful for the blessings that have covered the aches and losses of life: “I do not remember grief and loneliness so much as I do peace and comfort — grief, but never without comfort; loneliness, but never without peace.” Gilead is awash in a luminous grace that overflows and heals the limitations of human existence, and that resolution, seen by both Ames and the reader, provides hope and comfort.
While Gilead offers balm, however, Home uncovers wounds; as Sarah Churchwell writes, “where Gilead offers benediction, Home offers only valediction.” Through the rebellion and return of Jack Boughton, the book asks, “Can we really come home?” In the very mundane, familiar world of the Boughtons’ house, the slow and gentle prose reveals Glory, Jack, and their father as they struggle to overcome disappointments and failures and tentatively attempt restoration. Yet, human sorrow, isolation, and frailty never quite allow these characters, especially Jack, to receive the grace and love they so badly need to make them whole, and a spiritual home seems out of reach. With no clear resolution, Home achingly depicts our struggle to receive the grace that awaits us.
Which novel is more powerful? Although both novels are exquisitely moving, I preferred Home. By tenderly exploring human frailty without offering complete resolution, Home reveals even more powerfully the truly radical nature of grace. In this book, as in life, there are people (or places within us) that seem impervious to grace’s outreach. Sometimes, divine love and healing may only be received “outside the narrative” – by a love that transcends our weakness, sin, or self-rejection. Robinson actually hints at this possibility: in a story in which no one gets saved, there is a hope that is not explicit but profound nonetheless.
At the end of Home, as Glory watches Jack go, she asks herself, “who will bother to be kind to him”? and then sees him in terms of the famous description of Jesus as “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and as one from whom men hide their face”. The book hints that it is only through our Savior’s identification with the broken and exiled that our estrangement may be overcome – and it is through this that we will receive grace and comfort, even if we can’t seem to find our way home.
Somer Salomon has an MLitt in Theology, Imagination, and the Arts from the University of St. Andrews, as well as an MA in English Literature from Middlebury College. She currently teaches 11th grade English at a public charter school in Washington, DC, one of her favorite jobs in a varied career path that has included working for an economic development corporation , at a dot.com, and on a horse farm.
 Sara Churchwell, “A Man of Sorrows,” The Guardian. 3 October 2008. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/oct/04/fiction