by Marilynne Robinson

To describe the premise of the three novels comprising Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead series may not inspire you to spontaneously leap out of your seat and rush to (soapbox alert) the nearest local, independent bookstore — but it should. I’m not sure you’ll find three more deftly written meditations on what it means to be alive, with all the beauty and sorrow that the task entails.

In Gilead, the first of the series, an elderly minister named John Ames narrates the book via a letter he is writing to his six-year-old son. Diagnosed with a heart condition, Ames has been told he doesn’t have much time and he wants his little boy to know all the things he may not have a chance to tell him. It is the mid-1950s and Ames is the minister of tiny Gilead, Iowa, a place where he’s lived a simple but lonely existence for most of his life. Lila is the third book in the series and it could be considered a prequel, since it traces the backstory of Ames’ young wife, Lila, from her childhood through her marriage to “the old man,” as she calls him.

I refer to these books as meditations because that it exactly how I experienced them. Each time I read one, I felt as if I were in a trance. Gilead, in particular, read like a chant or a poem. This is not to say there’s anything lightweight about them. It is to say, however, that Robinson’s language takes these stories to a near-spiritual level, which befits the many theological discussions that abound. Can I say that I appreciated the full heft of each of these discussions? Most likely, no. But what I could appreciate was her characters desperate wish to understand the meaning of their existence and the gravity with which they took the job of being alive.

By the time we meet them, Ames and Lila and every one of Robinson’s characters have suffered their own losses and disappointments. It’s painful to witness how raw they’ve been rubbed by life. Yet in a way that only Midwesterners can, they persevere and work to bring meaning to their experiences. Ultimately I think it is the acute precariousness of the characters’ happiness that made the books both lovely and heartbreaking for me.

You may know that the Gilead series is the only work of fiction Robinson has written since her first novel Housekeeping, published in 1980. Like the Gilead books, Housekeeping received a ton of praise and since its publication has gone down in literary annals as a modern classic. The story is right up my alley: a couple of young girls growing up and making their way under unconventional conditions. Take this setup and couple it with my adoration for Robinson’s writing and you’d figure Housekeeping was one of my favorite books, right?

Well, like a lot of the awesome books I’ve read in my life, I first read Housekeeping when I was way too young to get anything out of it, other than the fact that it was supposed to be good. So I gave it another shot a few years ago. Still nothing. Apparently an elderly preacher in 1950s Iowa is more my speed. Maybe you should take everything I’ve said above with a grain of salt.


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Family Life
by Akhil Sharma

Around this time last year, when his semi-autobiographical novel Family Life was published, Akhil Sharma wrote an essay for The New Yorker about the 12 years and 7,000 pages he spent working on this book, a book that ended up being 218 pages. While I wasn’t planning to spend 12 years contemplating what to write about this book, I will say that my thoughts on this one haven’t flowed with the same ease as they often do here.

The word that keeps going around and around in my head is: sad. This is undoubtedly a sad story. The entire book revolves around the consequences of a diving accident experienced by the narrator’s older brother a couple years after their family immigrates to the US from India. The accident leaves the older son brain-damaged and with few resources to care for him, the entire family is thrown into turmoil. What makes the story even sadder is that it is based on Sharma’s own family, who experienced a similar tragedy when he was a child.

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Last weekend, a couple friends asked how I liked Family Life so far. I was about 2/3 of the way through the book and I commented on how very sad the story was, but that I felt I’d just reached a point where a glimmer of hope was starting to shine through. Wrong. It turns out that glimmer is quickly extinguished and the story continues on with more heartache. It probably sounds like I didn’t like the book. Sometimes “like” and “dislike” can be clumsy terms and neither really get to the heart of it. Here’s the more accurate synopsis: I was compelled. Despite the sadness.

When I hear someone say, “I don’t like sad stories,” my head explodes. It boggles my mind to ponder what kind of stories this person could possibly be reading that omit any references to disappointment, loss, heartache, or general tragedy. Without conflict, our stories wouldn’t be particularly interesting. Perhaps what these anti-sad story people mean is that they need their redemption and catharsis.

For those folks and some of you who may be on the fence over this sad issue, here’s a semi-spoiler alert: with the exception of the little glimmer of hope I mentioned about 2/3 of the way through, it is not until the very last line of Family Life that even the possibility of catharsis is presented. From a technical and structural standpoint, I found it deeply admirable that Sharma pulls this off so successfully. It’s definitely a “cool move” as one of my writing teachers used to say.

There’s no pandering here, there are no tidy little bows. It seems that working through 7,000 pages of material (man, I hope he can pull another book or two out of all that) left Sharma with a solid sense of integrity about how he was going to tell this story. And for that, credit is due. I can’t help but think, though, that perhaps for all his cool writerly moves, the result is something cold.

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Brilliant cartoon by Alison Bechdel

                              Brilliant cartoon by Alison Bechdel

My Brilliant Friend
by Elena Ferrante

There are so many different directions I could go with this gorgeous book, but what I keep coming back to is the Bechdel Test. Have you heard of the Bechdel Test? One of my clients introduced it to me recently. Named after the cartoonist and graphic novelist Alison Bechdel, who coined the idea in her 1985 comic Dykes to Watch Out For, the Bechdel Test measures whether a work of fiction features at least two women talking to each other about something other than men.

Now I’ve read my share of books that feature interesting, smart women talking about interesting, smart things, but I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book before in which two girls’ lives are so singularly driven by their intellect and desire for knowledge. My Brilliant Friend may as well have been written in direct response to the Bechdel Test.

This novel, the first in a series of four, depicts the childhood friendship between Elena, the book’s narrator, and Lila, who come of age in 1950s Naples, Italy. The girls live in a poor neighborhood on the edge of the city from which they never wander. Some of their friends take trips to the beach and other “outings far away,” but “Ours [their parents] weren’t like that, they didn’t have time, they didn’t have money, they didn’t have the desire.” In fact, they aren’t even aware that such a thing as high school exists until Elena’s teachers encourage her to attend.

By this time, Lila, the more naturally gifted of the two girls, has already been constricted to a life of work in the neighborhood, so the promise of higher education is beyond her reach. But it is Lila who continually sparks Elena’s academic pursuits and, although Elena doesn’t understand it at the time, her advanced studies in turn inspire Lila to educate herself so she can keep up with her friend. Their relationship is one of great intellectual stimulation and deep-seated competition – because using their brains is what truly matters to them.

This emphasis on knowledge translates to every facet of their lives. When they first discover Little Women (Jo March being the perfect protagonist for these two), they determine that if they can someday write books like Louisa May Alcott, they will become rich and escape their limited circumstances. To these girls, a life of the mind equals wealth, freedom and romance. As they grow into teenagers, Elena falls in the love with the smartest boy in school with whom “I wished I could talk every day to a boy on that level …”

There’s so much more I could tell you, like how the changes that the girls begin to witness in their neighborhood are a mirror for the changes throughout Italy at the time or how people can’t help but compare Ferrante’s series to that of Karl Ove Knausgaard or how Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym for an anonymous Italian author. But mostly I want to tell you that I loved this book and you’ll probably be hearing more about the other three.

A shout-out to my brilliant friend Justine for recommending it! Thank you!

Until next time, I’d love to hear about your favorite book featuring interesting, smart women?