Monday, March 16, 2009

Possibly I am an idiot...

Home: A Novel
by Marilynne Robinson
Edition: Audio CD

...because it took me so long to realize that this was a period novel set decades ago. Home is a claustrophobic novel set in small town Iowa and peopled with devout Christians. It might as well have been set on another planet for all that I know about that world. Which doesn't make it bad--obviously--but possibly I wasn't the best reader of this novel.

Lest you think that I'm a reader unfamiliar with or unappreciative of literary fiction, that is not the case. Robinson's novel is the very definition of character-driven literature. The reason I described it as claustrophobic above is that the story revolves around only three characters, and for the vast majority of the novel, they are the only three people you encounter. The brief scenes that allowed in other characters were such a relief!

The story is told from the point of view of 38-year-old Glory, the youngest of the eight children of Reverend Robert Boughton. Glory has recently moved home to Gilead, Iowa to care for her elderly father. Gradually we learn of the disappointments of her life. The household is shaken early in the novel by a letter from one of the middle sons, Jack. Glory was still a girl when Jack left home in disgrace 20 years ago. He has not been seen and barely heard from in all the years since, to the point that no one knew if he was alive or dead.

And the family has had cause to wonder about Jack's status and whereabouts. Growing up, he was always the rebellious one. Always in trouble at home, at school, and even with the law. When Jack returns to his father's home in Gilead, explanations about where he's been, why he stayed away for so long, and why he has suddenly returned are not quickly forthcoming. Jack has clearly had a hard life. He is struggling with alcoholism. He is trying to be a better person, but he is profoundly damaged. It was mostly Jack's story, as it was gently exposed, that kept my interest in the novel. Glory was kind, steady, dependable, but a bit bland. And the father--mostly he bugged me.

A big part of my annoyance with the character of Robert Boughton was the voice used by audiobook reader Maggi-Meg Reed when delivering his lines. OMG, it was like chalk scraping against a chalkboard! And a ridiculous number of his lines either began with or consisted entirely of the word, "Yes." It was grating. I've noticed that readers of the book seem to have enjoyed the experience more than listeners of the audiobook. Possibly I would have enjoyed the experience more through my eyes than my ears, as that is typically how I consume books. But that still wouldn't have saved me from a protracted theological debate on disc seven that left me wanting to throw the book across the room. But, hey, that's me.

I wished these characters spent less time walking on eggshells and more time engaged in honest conflict. But that's not who these people were, apparently. The ending of the novel was perfect, beautifully written and moving. It made me consider adding an extra star to my review, but in the end I decided not to. There will be enough accolades for Robinson, and my honest reaction to this book was mixed. Is Home a brilliant and nuanced character study? Probably. People smarter than me seem to think so. But there were a few times that I found the dialog preposterous. The story is slow, and there's no getting around the fact that it's a downer. Am I glad I read it? Yeah. I'm so overdue reading a Robinson novel. Alas, this has not inspired me to grab up the copy of Gilead that's been sitting on my shelf for four years, but maybe I'll give Housekeeping a whirl.

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