For every book we read during the book club, one of our book club members will write a review. This way anyone who couldn’t be there, can still join in with the fun! Roy den Boer is taking over as our main reviewer for the book club books, judging all that we have picked.
With Gilead the Bored to Death book club hits three books with religious themes in a row. The Miniaturist was set in the very protestant Amsterdam of the 1600’s, To Rise Again At A Decent Hour was about a dentist being pulled into a religious tribe of people and now Gilead is even more explicitly religious with its tale of an old, dying reverend sits down to write a message to his young son. While there’s a great many parallels to be drawn, especially between To Rise and Gilead, the two novels couldn’t be more different. Where To Rise is restless, Gilead is content. Where Joshua Ferris goes for clever, Marilynne Robinson goes for grace. Where Paul O’Rourke is an asshole, John Ames is a good guy.
John Ames is a third generation pastor. Apparently the three generations as described can serve as a parallel for the changes American Protestantism has gone through. Being neither religious nor American this parallel eluded me, but that sounds interesting. The grandfather being an angry one eyed coot, the father a pacifist and then John and his brother Edward, who loses the faith in favor of intellectualism.
Gilead certainly benefits from its subject matter being so traditional as to be simply revolutionary in modern day literature. A literary novel about a good Midwest Christian man who’s main conflict is that he wanted to be better than he has been? Who ever heard of such a thing? The conservative small-townness in this book usually lends itself to mawkish remember-when romanticism instead of literature. Small town America is stripped of sentimentality here, and becomes more beautiful because of it.
The only thing that kept me at a distance while reading the book was the character of Lila. John Ames’ second and much younger wife. We are told stories of him falling in love with her and wanting to impress her, but she remains at arm’s length throughout the book. I know the third book in the trilogy is named Lila and I know it wouldn’t make sense for John Ames to explain Lila to his son, since she’s young and likely going to actually see their son grow up. But Lila makes such an odd impression in the pages of Gilead and is never given depth here.
I was expecting to grudgingly the respect this book, but not really like it. “Yeah, well written,” I pictured myself saying, “but it’s boring and who cares?” I pictured austerity where the book presented warmth. The book isn’t really that different from what I pictured. Old Christian guy describes old Christian life. If it hadn’t been for the book club it probably would’ve been one of those I’ll-get-to-it books that I am never going to get to. I’m glad I got to it.