Tuesday, August 7, 2012

book review: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

The backstory: Gilead won the Pulitzer Prize in 2005, the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2004, and was longlisted for the Orange Prize in 2006.

The basics: As Rev. Ames nears the end of his life in the 1950's, he begins a letter to his young son because Ames realizes his son is too young to really know him. Gilead is that letter.

My thoughts: Gilead is a novel I'm been meaning to read for years. It's a character-driven, Midwestern narrative by one of our best contemporary writers. It should be a novel I love, yet I struggled to finish it and admit I was wowed by neither the story nor the writing.

Gilead seemed almost stream-of-consciousness at first. I appreciated that Robinson jumped right in: this novel is a letter from father to son; the reader's ignorance of these two characters is not the focus. As the novel progressed, more details began to be filled in, and the reader begins to understand the characters, setting and purpose. I enjoyed the first fifty pages, and I was left with more questions than answers. The premise was intriguing, and Robinson withheld enough details that made it almost mysterious.

The more I read, however, the more I grew bored. I'm typically a big fan of character portraits, but Gilead didn't provide me enough insight into Ames. I also became irked by the structure of the novel: I didn't buy it as a letter. I didn't buy it as the either the order or structure of what Ames would write to his son. Unfortunately, the narrative didn't quite work as a diary of look back on life for me. Ames never became more than a caricature for me, and without a plot, I need characters either real enough to believe in or writing amazing enough to rely on. Ultimately, this novel just didn't work for me.

Favorite passage:  "You can love a bad book for its haplessness or pomposity or gall, if you have that starveling appetite for things human, which I devoutly hope you never will have."

The verdict: While there were a few gorgeous passages in this novel, the writing wasn't poetic enough throughout to make up for the lack of plot and character development. Despite enjoying the premise of this novel, the execution left me cold, and I'm struggling to understand why so many others praise Gilead.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5
Length: 247 pages
Publication date: November 4, 2004 
Source: library

Want to read it for yourself? Buy Gilead from an independent bookstore, the Book Depository or Amazon (Kindle version.)

As an affiliate, I receive a small commission when you make a purchase through any of the above links. Thank you for helping to support my book habits that bring more content to this blog!

23 comments:

  1. I didn't enjoy much that book either. I was actually listening to the audiobook. I've found it boring in many places and hard to concentrate on listening to it. That's the only book of Marilynne Robinson that I read. Did you read her other books?/Did you like them?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Anna, I think I would really struggle with this one on audio. I haven't read her other fiction, but I've really enjoyed her essays. I'll be reading Home soon, and I'm a bit trepidatious now.

      Delete
  2. Sorry you didn't enjoy this book. It seems like some people love it while others don't. I haven't read it and it's not going on my tbr list either. ;-) I hope your next book is much better.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Vasilly! I'd love to chat with someone who did love this book to help figure out what I'm missing. I know every book isn't for every person, but I'm still surprised how much I didn't like this book.

      Delete
  3. Yay! Someone else who read the same (boring) book I did. You summed up my feeling exactly. I read this a few years ago, and can't believe how many people loved it. Your book recc's have just gone up a notch in my mind.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, raidergirl! I'm still surprised how much I didn't like it. I thought everyone loved this novel. Oh well. I'm glad you're with me:-)

      Delete
  4. I loved Home, but didn't love Housekeeping. I also have not tried this book, and since I am about 50/50 with this author, I can't say that I will be reading this one soon. I have heard that it is either love or hate with her writing, but I have had mixed emotions with it so far. Thanks for the excellent review and for sharing your thoughts with us.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Zibilee, I'll be reading Home soon and am curious how I'll react. I've heard mostly good thing about Housekeeping, but perhaps Robinson's fiction is just not for me.

      Delete
  5. I'm sorry this was disappointing for you. I've only read Housekeeping by Robinson, which I enjoyed.
    Isn't it interesting how some books that get a lot of awards let us down?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Lindsey. I've heard good things about Housekeeping, so I'm curious in that. Robinson is praised so much as a writer, I feel the need to keep investigating to see what else she's done and what might click for me.

      Delete
  6. Guiltily, this review makes me happy, because I've started Gilead about three times and never got very far. Now that I know it isn't just me, I can rejoice and let go on attempt number four!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Audra, you're not missing much here! When I finished it, I immediately went to see what others had thought. I was so relieved to find other very negative reviews from trusted bloggers. It's good to be in good company:-)

      Delete
  7. The only Robinson I've ever tried was Housekeeping, and I didn't make it past the first chapter. I doubt I'll ever be giving this one a try.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Oh dear. That's the one people who didn't like this one have sometimes liked. Perhaps Robinson is just not an author for me.

      Delete
  8. Finally someone who agrees with me on this one! I was bored to tears by Gilead...and I've not read another book by this author since. Usually I love a book that is all about character, but this one fell so flat for me. I think you rated it higher than I did!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Wendy, it's nice to be in such excellent company!

      Delete
  9. I don't understand it either. I tried reading a few pages of Home and I was bored. I didn't finish the book, that's it for me with re: Marilyn Robinson. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. JoV, I'm going to give Home a chance as I finish the Orange Prize winners this fall, but my expectations are certainly lower now.

      Delete
  10. I've heard lots of good things about this book,but I had trouble getting into it when I picked it up. I've been meaning to go back Tobit, but I'm not in a rush.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Laura, I would definitely say, "no rush." I think it's either a love it or hate it book. I actually liked it less the farther I got in it.

      Delete
    2. Ack.. To it. I really should pay more attention when I comment on my IPad.

      Delete
  11. I tried this one very shortly after it was released and I WAS BORED TOO! And I almost felt guilty telling anyone that because the writing was beautiful in theory. Ultimately, it just didn't float my boat.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Andi, I'm so with you. I think the writing was beautiful in theory, but it did not leave me in awe the way I prefer my writing.

      Delete

Thank you for taking the time to comment. Happy reading!