Robinson's novel teaches us how to read it, suggests how we might slow down to walk at its own processional pace, and how we might learn to coddle its many fine details. 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 … When Robinson reduces her language, it's because secular meaning has exhausted itself and is being renovated by religious meaning … Robinson's book ends in characteristic fashion, with its feet planted firmly on the Iowa soil and its eyes fixed imploringly on heaven, as a dying man daily pictures Paradise but also learns how to prolong every day – to extend time, even on earth, into a serene imitation of eternity.
There's nothing flashy in these pages, and yet one regularly pauses to reread sentences, sometimes for their beauty, sometimes for their truth … The time span of Gilead is roughly a hundred years – from the 1850s to 1956, when Ames sets down his story. Implicitly, it looks far into the future – Ames imagines his little boy as an old man – and in spirit back to Biblical times. Eventually one realizes that beyond a portrait of the human condition – prey to isolation and loneliness, ever needful of faith and love – Robinson has subtly introduced that great heartbreaking theme of American history, the often divisive, unfulfilled quest for social and racial justice.
Gilead takes the form of Ames's journal entries, written for his child to read when he is grown. The narrative roams and circles, as diaries do, and is largely cerebral, with little forward imperative. In this sort of book all depends on the quality of the contemplation and the charm of the voice. Fortunately, Ames's is original and strong … The story here seems overlaid, a thin vein on top of the book, not even covering its full span. It is as if Robinson has lost the taste for plot … One hesitates to define Gilead exactly as a novel. It is a beautiful book of ideas.
Gilead is chock full of rich, complex language, as well as plunges into intricate philosophical and spiritual introspections. There's also an intriguing plot turn and characters who harbor beguiling histories. One might also point out that it's the little things – the main character's love of baseball and fried-egg sandwiches, for instance – that ground this deeply reflective, yet accessible novel … One might label this a religious book, but that would be overreaching. Rather, it's a meditation on the sacredness and inscrutability of belief, forgiveness and faith in human connections … Whether or not Gilead, Iowa, is the refuge Jack Boughton hopes for, Gilead is a refuge for readers longing for that increasingly rare work of fiction, one that explores big ideas while telling a good story.
This quiet new novel from Marilynne Robinson couldn't be less compatible with the times – or more essential … Ames's narrative is a mixture of wry commentary on the ministerial life, heartfelt reflections on God, and passing observations on what's happening that day. He makes a good effort to keep the preachy inflection out of his voice, but when it comes through, you can hear what fine guidance he must have given over the course of 2,250 sermons … There are passages here of such profound, hard-won wisdom and spiritual insight that they make your own life seem richer.
The letter here attempts what may be literarily impossible, to lay out by way of a modern parable – written in the form of a meditation or confession or sermon – on what it is to live in a state of Christian grace. This is how John Ames views his earthly life … Ames's letter to his son also explores the historical remnants of American slavery...Though the novel offers portraits of two sublime marriages, that of Jack Boughton is compromised by this society's inability – nearly a hundred years after the Civil War – to provide blacks many forms of civil equality: here the right to marry whites.
The most extraordinary and best of the stories in Gilead are to do with the quarrels Ames remembers between his father and grandfather; these are the hub of the novel’s arguments about the transforming power of religious faith … [Ames’s] voice has things so comfortably sewn up, it doesn’t have any capacity for the truth-seeking exertions of fresh thought. If we are meant to infer from the novel a continuum between the grandfather’s activism spurred by passionate faith and Ames’s late-life celebrations of a world radiant with God’s love, the language is too bland to convince us. Ames’s mere acquiescence to the existence of Jack’s mixed-race child can’t stand all by itself for a significant engagement against injustice.
What Robinson has written is, in fact, a mystery … Ames is an utterly reliable narrator, not least because he is aware of how fallible a narrator he is, despite his efforts in life—and in this letter—to keep asking what he calls at one point the ‘obvious question’: ‘What is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation?’ … In a novel haunted by the parallel between God and his flock and parents and their children, perhaps it goes without saying that the dilemma Ames wrestles with is not merely a personal drama.
You can appreciate and admire Marilynne Robinson’s beautifully evoked novel if you don’t share her religious values: You can even be moved by it. But unless you are a believing Christian with strong fundamentalist leanings, you cannot truly understand Gilead … Robinson might make John Ames open to competing versions of Christianity; she might make him confess a minor spiritual weakness from time to time. But he is—refreshingly—an almost entirely reliable narrator, whose religious faith unifies and justifies Robinson’s story … Despite Gilead’s insistence on the divine splendor of God’s creation, Robinson does not allow her characters to exist outside narrow moral dilemmas.
Robinson's new novel, Gilead, is propelled by some of the same themes of loneliness and survival and is written with the same lucid prose style [as Housekeeping], but its characters are not nearly as engaging nor its story as compelling … Ames' somber life is tied up with his namesake and best friend, John Ames Boughton, and that man's son, Jack Jr. Jack, a prodigal son, bears a secret that he reveals to Ames. The parallels to Ames' family are a bit too pat and anticipated, even though they relate to the primary theme of fathers and sons and the necessity for forgiveness and repentance.
[Ames] possesses an agile intellect and an intimidating capacity for mindfulness—a gift, no doubt, of his physical infirmity, but also of a lifetime of writing, reading, and thinking. Indeed, despite the authentic vernacular, Ames’s voice is nearly identical to that of his creator … Robinson’s well-reasoned scrutiny of faith in action is more audacious than pedantic, and it’s difficult to imagine a less sanctimonious writer. Ames’s beliefs, rationalizations, and preoccupations accumulate to express, with rare fullness and grace, nothing less than the divine riddle of existence.