Over the course of an almost forty year fiction writing career, Marilynne Robinson has published just four novels—with a twenty-four year gap between her 1980 debut, Housekeeping, and her second novel, Gilead—but each of these books made a seismic impact on the American literary landscape upon its publication. Indeed, few if any contemporary authors can boast such a remarkable success rate on the awards circuit. Housekeeping won the Pen/Hemingway Award, Gilead the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award, Home the Orange Prize and Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and Lila the NBCC Award once again. Along the way, Robinson also picked up the National Humanities Medal and the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction, as well as various other awards and nominations.
Robison, whose writing frequently explores the nature of faith and spirituality in rural America, also taught English and Creative Writing at the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop for twenty-five years (where in 2015 she sat in conversation with Barack Obama about literature, American history, and the role of faith in society), and is the author of several books of essays and nonfiction including 2018’s What Are We Doing Here?
As today is Robinson’s 76th birthday, we thought we’d take a look back at the very first reviews of each of her four extraordinary novels.
Because, once alone, it is impossible to believe that one could ever have been otherwise.
Loneliness is an absolute discovery.
Winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award
The story of Ruth and her younger sister, Lucille, who grow up haphazardly, first under the care of their competent grandmother, then of two comically bumbling great-aunts, and finally of Sylvie, the eccentric and remote sister of their dead mother.
“Here’s a first novel that sounds as if the author has been treasuring it up all her life, waiting for it to form itself. It’s as if, in writing it, she broke through the ordinary human condition with all its dissatisfactions, and achieved a kind of transfiguration. You can feel in the book a gathering voluptuous release of confidence, a delighted surprise at the unexpected capacities of language, a close, careful fondness for people that we thought only saints felt … Miss Robinson works with light, dark, water, heat, cold, textures, sounds and smells. She is like the Impressionists, taking apart the landscape to remind us that we are surrounded by elements, that we are separated from one another, and from our past and future, by such influences … She knocks off the false elevation, the pretentiousness, of our current fiction. Though her ambition is tall, she remains down to earth, where the best novels happen.”
–Anatole Broyard (The New York Times)
“The title and the theme suggest an updated version of Little Women, but nothing could be further from the truth. The weird poetry of this book owes nothing to benign domesticity. It is a desperate spell cast against loneliness and desolation; and ‘house-keeping’ is a bitter irony, for though there is a house, in and around which most of the action takes place, no one manages to keep it in any ordinary sense of the word … Reduced to its bare bones, this is a story of alienation, failure and collapse—and there is no attempt to disguise the bare bones. Yet it is told in language of such radiance and clarity that the taste it leaves behind is of lyric grace, not desolation and squalor. The effect is extraordinary.”
–Graham Hough (The London Review of Books)
“Robinson’s brooding first novel is perhaps fatally weighed down with excess myth-and-symbol pretensions, but it’s often exhilaratingly imaginative—as narrator Ruth becomes a kind of spectral presence in the tale of her own childhood and early adolescence in a remote, flood-prone lakeside village in Idaho … A convoluted novel, obsessively striated with repetitive images of fluidity—flooding waters, blinking trains, the play of light and darkness, wisps of overheard tales—but if the poetry is over-stressed, the bottom-line talent in this highly promising debut is unmistakable.”
This is an interesting planet. It deserves all the attention you can give it.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction
Reverend John Ames begins to write a letter to his young son, an account of himself and his forbears and the sacred bonds between fathers and sons.
“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.”
–James Wood (The New York Times Book Review)
“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.”
–Michael Dirda (The Washington Post)
“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 Gileadexactly as a novel. It is a beautiful book of ideas.”
–Mona Simpson (The Atlantic)
There’s so much to be grateful for, words are poor things.
Winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction
Set in the same time and place as Gilead, Glory and Jack Boughton have returned home to try to heal themselves and the family as their father is dying.
“Gilead and Home stand together, in part, as twinned portraits of these godly, elderly patriarchs … Even as Robinson’s deep and unsentimental fondness for Ames and Boughton is as evident as their devotion to each other, her judgment of them and what they represent is uncompromising and severe. Home is a book full of doubleness and paradox, at once serene and volcanic, ruthless and forgiving. It is an anguished pastoral, a tableau of decency and compassion that is also an angry and devastating indictment of moral cowardice and unrepentant, unacknowledged sin … Home and Gilead are marvelous novels about family, friendship and aging. But they are great novels—or perhaps two installments in a single, as yet unfinished great novel—about race and religion in American life.”
–A.O. Scott (The New York Times Book Review)
“Home begins simply, eschewing obvious verbal fineness, and slowly grows in luxury—its last fifty pages are magnificently moving, and richly pondered in the way of Gilead. Home is not a sequel to that novel but more like that novel’s brother, since it takes place at the same narrative moment and dovetails with its happenings … What propels the book, and makes it ultimately so powerful, is the Reverend Boughton, precisely because he is not the soft-spoken sage that John Ames is in Gilead. He is a fierce, stern, vain old man, who wants to forgive his son and cannot.”
–James Wood (The New Yorker)
“As Gilead demonstrated, Ms. Robinson is better at describing spiritual yearnings and the metaphysics of faith than she is at mapping complicated psychological relationships. At the same time Home lacks the fablelike intensity and visual, metaphoric dazzle of her much-loved first novel, Housekeeping. Instead Home gives us scene after scene of Jack and Glory—and sometimes their father—talking to each other about their doubts and regrets and failed dreams. This results in a static, even suffocating narrative in which very little is dramatized, and much is recalled secondhand, and it makes the characters, especially Jack, seem terribly self-absorbed.”
–Michiko Kakutani (The New York Times)
The best things that happen I’d never have thought to pray for. In a million years.
The worst things just come like the weather.
Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction
The third of the Gilead novels, Lila is the story of a girlhood lived on the fringes of society in fear, awe, and wonder.
“Robinson resists the notion of love as an easy antidote to a lifetime of suffering or solitude, suggesting that intimacy can’t intrude on loneliness without some measure of pain … Lila takes as its core concern what might have constituted, in another narrative, a happy ending: two lonely souls who never expected happiness somehow finding it. But Robinson’s quest is to illuminate how fraught this happiness is, shadowed by fears of its dissolution and the perverse urge to hasten that dissolution before it arrives unbidden … Robinson’s choice to keep returning to the world she first introduced in Gilead is itself a way of paying tribute to complexity. Beneath the surface of each character, the trio of novels reminds us, is a particular and infinite soul.”
–Leslie Jamison (The Atlantic)
“These three exquisite books constitute a trilogy on spiritual redemption unlike anything else in American literature … Lila crawls into Gilead from another world altogether, a realm of subsistence living where the speculations of theologians are as far away—and useless—as the stars … This may be the most tentative, formal and charming romance you’ll ever encounter … Robinson has constructed this novel in a graceful swirl of time, constantly moving back to Lila and Doll’s struggles with starvation, desperate thieves and vengeful relatives. We see that dark past only intermittently, as a child’s clear but fragmentary memories or a trauma victim’s flashbacks.”
–Ron Charles (The Washington Post)
“With Lila, the third novel about these families and this town, we understand more clearly the metaphorical nature of the landscape, the era and the history … Told with measured and absorbing elegance, this account of the growing love and trust between Lila and Reverend Ames is touching and convincing. The stages of Lila’s strengthening sense of security are carefully delineated, physical relations and her pregnancy handled with careful tact … Lila is not so much a novel as a meditation on morality and psychology, compelling in its frankness about its truly shocking subject: the damage to the human personality done by poverty, neglect and abandonment.”
–Diane Johnson (The New York Times Book Review)