There’s an inherent danger in starting a new novel by an author you’re familiar with, for the new work has to fight against the expectations engendered by the previous. I first encountered Marilynne Robinson’s debut novel Housekeeping in the early ’90s, when I was a Masters student at Boston College, and in the intervening years I’ve repeatedly taught (and thus repeatedly read) it for the “Literature of the Open Road” class I teach at Keene State. When in 2005 I first read Robinson’s long-anticipated second novel, Gilead, it took me a while to warm to the story. It’s difficult not to make comparisons between a first and second novel when you’ve repeatedly read and taught the former during the years you waited for the latter. With her new novel Home, though, Marilynne Robinson invites comparison between her previous narrative and its successor, as Home tells the exact same story as does Gilead, but from a completely different perspective.
That switch in perspective makes all the difference, for even though I revisited (via audiobook) Gilead right before starting to listen to Home, I didn’t feel like I was being cheated by mere rehash. In Home, Glory Boughton’s perspective on her wayward brother’s story is as different from the Reverend John Ames’ account in Gilead as any two novels could be. In Gilead, the Rev. Ames writes as an old man who struggles to forgive his own namesake, John Ames “Jack” Boughton–the wayward son of his childhood friend and neighbor, the Reverend Robert Boughton. Rev. Ames is a Congregationalist and Rev. Boughton is a Presbyterian…but both clergymen share a similar outlook when it comes to young Jack, who returns to Gilead, Iowa after a long absence. Neither Rev. Ames nor Rev. Boughton knows what Jack Boughton, now in his 40s, has been up to for the past 20 years, but neither minister believes it can be any good. In Home, Robinson returns to Jack Boughton’s story, but this time as understood by Jack’s 38-year-old sister, Glory, who has returned to Gilead to tend her ailing father after having gone to college, taken a teaching job, and settled down elsewhere.
Having read Gilead, I approached Home as a detective might re-visit the scene of a crime gone cold: where are there clues–hidden or brazenly in the open–that I missed the first time? Jack Boughton’s life is a modern re-telling of the parable of the prodigal son: having left Gilead after he shamed his pious family with a string of much-gossiped misdeeds (the very acts Rev. Ames agonizes over in Gilead), Jack returns to his father’s house after years of presumably misspent youth. No one–particularly the elderly and increasingly decrepit Rev. Boughton–knows why Jack has returned, and no one seems bold enough to ask him. Home at last, Jack is nevertheless a stranger to his own family and hometown, and his pained conversations with his sister Glory offer the only hints readers get into his unknown life outside Iowa.
If you’ve read Gilead, you know (eventually) the secret Jack harbors: you know the heartbreak that eventually drives him home. Reading Home with this bit of secret knowledge, you find the novel rife with dramatic irony. Privy to the story Jack isn’t telling, you note each of the clues that Glory, Rev. Boughton, and Rev. Ames miss. Privy to the story Jack isn’t telling, you wonder when, how, or whether his full story will be known.
Jack Boughton isn’t the only wayward child in Home, however. In Gilead, Rev. Ames notes that Glory Boughton returned to Gilead to tend to her father after the failure of her marriage; in Home, you learn that this, too, is an impartial story. Both the Boughtons and the Ames–like, perhaps, the inhabitants of Gilead itself–are quietly proud, keeping both their joys and sorrows close to their hearts. Whereas Gilead, like Housekeeping before it, is a first-person narrative, told in the form of a long letter Rev. Ames writes to his young son, Home is narrated in the third-person. We as readers aren’t privy to Glory Boughton’s hidden heartache, but a fragmentary story emerges from both the narrator’s limited view and the snippets of story Glory shares with her brother as they grow in confidence. At times, particularly at the beginning of the novel, the narrative seems to creep on crippled feet, the dialogue between Jack and Glory being so painfully polite as each tries not to betray the other’s feeble trust. In time–by book’s end–you realize that shared confidence is a sacred thing, not to be entered into lightly.
Although I found myself occasionally comparing Glory, who feels trapped in Gilead by filial obligation, to the rootless character of Sylvie in Housekeeping, Home is more closely akin to Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It. Each work features a piously close-knit Presbyterian family headed by a strict minister father; both the Boughtons and the Macleans deeply love one another but seem uncertain how to communicate that love. Whereas in Gilead, the Rev. Ames struggles with the question of whether a lifelong troublemaker can truly change, in Home both the Rev. and Glory Boughton struggle with the difficulty Norman Maclean faced in A River Runs Through It: how can you help a troubled, self-destructive loved one who doesn’t seem to want your help? Both Glory and Jack Boughton come home to their father’s house in Gilead when it seems they have nowhere else to turn: home, it seems, is where you go when every other road leads to a dead-end. While Glory Boughton is able to maintain an appearance of respectability in tending her father, however, the Boughtons, Rev. Ames, and all of Gilead, it seems, know Jack as nothing but a failure.
With Gilead fresh in mind, I wondered as I listened to Home how Robinson would end the story. I knew how Gilead ended, but I suspected Rev. Ames wouldn’t (indeed, couldn’t) have the last word in this alternative account. Knowing the secret that Jack keeps meticulously hidden from his father and sister–a secret whose unveiling serves as the emotional turning point of Gilead–I wondered when, whether, or how Glory, her father, or any of the town would learn the reason for Jack Boughton’s absence from and eventual return to his father’s house. As Robinson’s retelling, from a slightly different perspective, of a familiar story continued, I tried to guess various ways of bringing the narrative to a close, all of them somehow unsatisfactory. The ending of Home is much better than I envisioned: not exactly happy, but ultimately hopeful. Even when you’re exiled from a place you never felt native to, the hope of home can be an enduring balm.
This is my first review for the 2009 Audiobook Challenge, whereby I pledged to listen to (and review on-blog) twelve audiobooks in twelve months. If you’re interested in participating in the challenge, please visit J. Kaye’s Book Blog for details; you can access links to other participants’ audiobook reviews here.
I’ve already begun listening to Toni Morrison’s latest novel, A Mercy, so I’ll review that as soon as I’ve finished. In the meantime, if you’re intrigued by the colorful images accompanying today’s post, feel free to view my complete photo-set showing the funky fence at the corner of Franklin and Brookline Streets in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Enjoy!