“This life on earth is strange business,” thinks Glory Boughton as she prepares supper for her frail father, Reverend Robert Boughton, and her brother, Jack. Their father rejoices that they have come back to Gilead, the 1950’s Iowa town created by Marilynne Robinson in her novel Home. Boughton needs his daughter’s care, but the circumstances of Glory’s homecoming are fraught with regret deeper than the realization that her father is dying. A long, ill-fated love affair and an abandoned teaching career make her wonder what has become of her life.
“Home to stay!” is how Reverend Boughton greets Glory, but “her heart sank” as she heard those words, which open the novel, for failure and loss haunt her return to Gilead. Times were better before she left home for good, but in 1956, the year in which Home is set, coming home makes her say, “I hate this town . . . because it reminds me of when I was happy.”
“There’s no place like home,” goes an old song, but Glory’s question“What does it mean to come home?”leaves little room for nostalgia. That question applies to Jack, the family’s prodigal son, more than to Glory, for without explanation he returns after a twenty-year absence, unbroken even by his mother’s funeral. If his story ends more darkly than Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son in the New Testament’s Gospel according to Luke (15:11-32), which this novel recalls, the Boughton relationships, uncovered layer by layer, possess unusual contemporary power to make readers think about their own families and the homes they try to sustain.
Dan, Luke, Jack, and Teddy are the Boughton boys. Faith, Hope, and Grace are Glory’s sisters. “The girls in this family,” Glory remarks, “got named for theological abstractions and the boys got named for human beings.” In the Boughton household, however, faith, hope, grace, and glory are not abstractions. In addition to being the names of daughters and sisters, those words shape the family’s identity and its members’ different responses to it.
Although the children have grown up and left, and one parent has been buried and the other is dying, the Boughton home remains a place where Scripture is respected, prayers are said, conversation about life’s significance continues, the importance of forgiveness is affirmed, hope seems unending, and gratitude for good everyday thingsthe stuff that often constitutes gracefinds expression. However, despite Glory’s presence, not much is glorious about the Boughton family, although some of them are successful enough. Teddy is a doctor. Following in his father’s footsteps, Luke is a minister. Like Gloria, Dan is a teacher. Reverend Boughton has been revered as a pastor, and, for the most part, the now-scattered Boughton family enjoys esteem in Gilead. Nevertheless, the Boughtonsespecially Glory, Jack, and their fatherare hurting and grieving because love is often painful, life does not respect Scripture, prayers go unanswered, coherent meaning is elusive, forgiveness is no match for harm done and guilt felt or unacknowledged, hope harbors hopelessness, discouragement undermines faith, and grace, whether divine or human, may be insufficient. In the Boughtons’ home, these disheartening experiences are linked to the fact that Jack’s full name is John Ames Boughton. He was indeed named for a human being, Robert Boughton’s best friend, Reverend John Ames.
The reflection that Robinson invites, intensified by her story’s melancholy, does not depend entirely on Gilead (2004), the equally touching novel that preceded Home. These novels, however, are definitely companions; their narratives intersect and amplify each other as the lives of the Boughton and the Ames families unfold together. Readers who track both stories will appreciate all the more the brilliance of Robinson’s prose, how perceptively she handles the secret contradictions and unspoken feelings of family life, how lucidly she interprets fundamental elements of Christian teaching, and how sensitively she probes the regret and heartache that engulf people when ties that bind are broken.
The yearnings found in both novels are specific to the Ames and Boughton homes, which are steeped in Christianity, but versions of those longings are widely shared by families everywhere. Narrated in the third person, Glory’s perspective informs Home, while Reverend Ames’s voice governs the first-person account in Gilead. At seventy-six, Ames is older than Robert Boughton, who has been his lifelong friend, but Ames’s heart is failing, and he, too, is dying. Ames treasures books, including those on philosophy, and he loves writing and baseball, too. He has seen plenty of suffering and grief in Gilead. His life has included sorrow, which touched him deeply...
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