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.