Marilynne Robinson: One of America’s Best Continues to Awe

Jack. John. Lila. These are some of the most enduring characters in modern American literature. They speak to us on many levels, particularly, I think, because they provide no clear answers. At times heroic and at times deeply flawed, they are also some of the most human characters in contemporary fiction.

If you aren’t yet familiar with the town of Gilead, allow me to introduce you. Master writer Marilynne Robinson has made a career out of crafting the fictional town, and at this point many of her readers feel like honorary residents, or at least like they have a summer home there. The first book in her trilogy, Gilead, centers on the elderly Reverend John Ames. Written as a series of letters to his young son, John records his ponderings over the town, their family history, and the deepest questions humans have ever asked. When his friend’s son, Jack, comes back to town after an absence of 20 years, John also wonders what Jack’s role will be when he ultimately shakes his mortal coil.

Robinson followed Gilead, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, with Home. Rather than acting a sequel to Gilead, Home takes place contemporaneously with the first book. This time, we visit with Jack and his sister Glory, finally hearing their sides of the story. While John had seen Jack as a ne’er-do-well, we are now acquainted with a beautiful and complex character, diving deeper into his life, family, and motivations.

Lila is not set in the same time period as the other two books in the trilogy. Rather, it follows Lila, John’s young wife, throughout her life, beginning with her hard-knock childhood through the birth of their son. As many readers have already noted, it’s gratifying to at last hear Lila’s voice as her character is fleshed out in this novel.

Robinson is a Congregationalist, that Christian sect that included so many of America’s Founding Fathers. Religion is front and center in her novels, as her characters put so much of their lives in the “mystery of God.” But never does she come off as preachy. This is not the Puritanical Christianity of the Pilgrims, but a deeper, more loving approach. Even still, readers of all faiths have flocked to the fictional town of Gilead, and have been met with awe. Personal belief matters less than the questions being asked, the yearning felt, the desire for something more.

My friend Anne Helen Petersen, author of Scandals of Classic Hollywood, wrote a piece for BuzzFeed on Robinson titled “Missing Church, Not Religion: Why I Read Marilynne Robinson.” Petersen writes:

Robinson writes in a way that manages to seem at once spare and expansive. I can’t tell you whether her sentences are short or long, simply that they make my life and thoughts seem like they have a meter. It’s incredibly soothing and yet—remarkably, inexplicably—the opposite of soporific. Even as her characters wade through sorrow, there’s a sharpness to her work, an abundance, an alacrity. I want to swim through the deep lake of each chapter. It’s that immersive and, in its attention to the smallest details of the reflective mind, that otherworldly.”

I can’t put it any better.

Robinson saves her more heady theology and personal faith for her nonfiction pieces. She has also worked for many years as an essayist, with articles published in Harper’s and The Paris Review, among others.

Listen to Marilynne Robinson’s NPR interview here.

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