Monday, November 9, 2009
Glory Boughton has come home to Gilead to care for her dying father, the Reverend Robert Boughton. As Glory strives to fulfill her father's exacting demands, she laments the loss of her fiancé and former life, all the while regretting her move back to her stagnant hometown. One morning, the Reverend receives a letter from his wayward son Jack, telling his father that he will soon be returning home. The letter comes very much as a surprise and blessing for the Reverend, as Jack has been absent for 20 years and has had no communication with the family. Jack's history of rebelliousness is long and fraught with shame and pain among the family, and as Jack moves ever homeward, those he left behind struggle with the hope of reunion. As Glory and her father prepare for Jack's arrival, they both find themselves thinking of past hurts and are ever hopeful that Jack's homecoming will be a much needed balm to his father's suffering spirit. But Jack's homecoming is not easy, and it soon becomes apparent that although his father wishes for nothing more than to forgive his son, he cannot. Jack, a quiet and emotionally wounded man, brings with him secrets of his own, and as Glory begins to forge a tentative relationship with him, they both come to find that the peace and contentment they so long for in their family will come at a very dear price. In this poignant tale of the prodigal son, Robinson takes us into the hearts and minds of a family that is at fierce work to be whole, to a place where redemption and reparation are so desperately desired, but unable to come to fruition.
This was an absolutely beautiful book. There were several sections where I found myself so moved by the drama unfolding on the pages that I couldn't help but cry. Robinson writes with such grace and tact that it is impossible not to be moved by her characters' quiet proclamations and heartfelt utterances. Whether it is the sorrow of a life that has been forsaken or the terrible humbleness of Jack's return, the writing is replete with wellsprings of sentiment and passion. The words are quiet and serene, but just underneath the surface I was witnessing torrents of ragged emotion and years of suppressed pain.
The Reverend, ever hopeful and gentle with his children, cannot seem to ever be able to wrap his mind around what it is that his son needs. Although he longs to give his son the forgiveness that he has come home for, he is unable to let the transgressions of the past be unburdened from his heart and give his son peace. It is such a juxtaposition, to see the tenderness that he expresses toward Jack, all the while withholding the one thing that his son most desperately needs, the thing that is so hard for him to ask for. He is constantly at odds with himself, his heart longing to grant pardon and his head ever refusing. It broke my heart to watch these two men fumble so blindly with their intentions, to see them both in so much pain but be unable to express it or relieve it.
Jack, despite being the miscreant in this tale, was the one character whom I felt the most for. He was so spiritually depleted and it seemed as if all of his hope had been abandoned. He was quiet and gentle, yes, but also pitifully humbled and sorrowfully contrite. He seemed to worry himself to distraction, mostly about what others thought of him or what they would think. There was a quiet struggle taking place within: his need for acceptance and forgiveness pitted against his need for self-preservation and secrecy. He had a wry and very self-deprecating attitude in his interactions with Glory, a way of making both more and less of the situations that he found himself in. In his desire for his father's blessing he seemed to expect the wounds he would incur, believing in some way that he deserved them.
I also really liked how the view of Jack from Glory's eyes gave his character more depth. The relationship between the two was fraught with tension, but it was there that Jack seemed to open up. Though he would never really reveal all of his secrets, his attempts to reach out to Glory brought the gentleness and meekness of his character into full relief.
Though I found the last section of the book to be the most emotional section, there were several instances when an ordinary situation would provoke a response from one of the characters that was deeply affecting. Reading this book was much like walking in a minefield; I never knew when something was going to come out and grab me and shake me to the core. During one of the more touching arguments between father and son, the Reverend, full of sorrow, exclaims to his son, "If I'd had to die without seeing your face again, I'd have doubted the goodness of the Lord." The fact that this statement comes from a man of the cloth makes it all the more powerful and affecting. What the book really boils down to is the conundrum of a man of God refusing his most beloved child release, the child in turn unable to finally give his father the peace he so obviously needs. But it is within the framework of this story that Robinson drives her characters to strive and twist in their yearnings to exist as a family complete, a situation that sadly never comes to pass.
I really felt strongly for this book, and I think that anyone who enjoys literature steeped with emotion would enjoy it too. Robinson touches profoundly on the themes of forgiveness, absolution and regret with beautiful accuracy, making this a very quiet but stunning read. This book is a companion to Robinson's 2004 novel Gilead. Both books take place at the same time, so it's not necessary to read them in any particular order. Highly recommended.
This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.