Home, by Marilynne Robinson

This 2008 work is a difficult novel for me to evaluate. It is about the Boughton family introduced in the writer’s previous work, Gilead, named for the town in which the family lives. But it is particularly about Glory Boughton and her estranged brother Jack. Glory has returned home to Gilead to care for her widowed father, Robert Boughton, a retired minister who is in ill health, when Jack unexpectedly arrives home as well, to be greeted warmly by Gloria but less so by his father, who resents his son’s twenty-year absence.

This novel has received favorable reviews, but it was difficult for me to identify with this family early in the work, when it is simply introducing its three main characters. But once it begins to develop their relationships, especially between Glory and Jack, my interest grew. For growing up in her father’s faith has instilled in Glory a sense of kindness and generosity, and one can easily identify with her. And, besides, she still loves her brother, who regrets abandoning his family and yet seems programmed to remain the black sheep among what were eight children. Glory’s relationship with her brother grows more and more complex for us, but it is through their conversations, their constant give and take, rather than through any physical actions. Indeed, their honest interactions represent the novel’s only plot, and one reads simply to learn where their relationship is headed.

Having been raised by their father, a minister, and having spent considerable time with John Ames, their father’s best friend and also a minister, we find that underpinning the complex family relationships is the idea of faith, a faith that obliges love and yet also carries its own obligations. Jack was the favorite of his father’s eight children, but the father both resents the boy’s abandonment of his family for twenty years and feels guilty with the realization that their alienation is partly his own fault. Whereas, Jack now has guilt feelings about his troubled youth before he left home. Glory, on the other hand, loves her brother despite his youthful indiscretions, and yet distrusts all males after having been abandoned by a fiancée whom she believed loved her. Having been raised by a minister, “faith for her,” she thinks, “was habit and family loyalty.”

The neighboring minister, John Ames, the main character in Gilead, is also a kind of father figure, and adds to the spiritual underpinning of these characters. As Robinson has Glory think, “Ames and her father had quarreled over [predestination] any number of times, her father asserting the perfect sufficiency of grace with something like ferocity, while Ames maintained, with a mildness his friend found irksome, that the gravity of sin could not be gainsaid.”

  1. O. Scott in The New York Times suggest one explanation of these family relationships when he writes that “nothing in the novel rules out the possibility that Jack might exist outside the grace of God, and that this…might explain his loneliness and estrangement in the bosom of such a warm and generous family. Indeed, he also writes that “Home and Gilead are marvelous novels about family, friendship and aging…they are great novels.”

I myself would not go that far. But Robinson has certainly taken an intriguing approach to this family. That is, their continuous conversations bring out their innermost thoughts, as they cook for each other, clean the house, and tidy up the yard, all the while helping us to understand them as they strive to understand each other.

Michiko Kakatani, on the other hand, writes in the Times that “Home gives us scene after scene of Jack and Glory—and sometimes their father—talking to each other about their doubts and regrets and failed dreams. The result is a static and even suffocating narrative in which very little is dramatized…and it makes the characters, especially Jack, seem terribly self-absorbed.” Which also describes my reaction to the early sections of the novel. But then I began to relate to these same characters, began to see the pain, the restraint, their reaching out to one another, all of which enriched their mutual portraits.

The title “Home” is well chosen, for it focuses the reader on the essence of this novel, just as the title of “Gilead” focused one on the relationships in their town. Here, Glory and Jack have both returned home, having fled a sense of failure, of unfulfillment, of empty relationships and a resulting loneliness. What they seek from their father and their home’s familiar rooms is a return to their comfortable past, to an acceptance that will bring forgiveness, love, and self-worth.

There is also a sense of irony at the end. Jack misses out on a connection that might have answered certain needs. The scene is too underwritten, however, to carry the emotion it appears to strive for. And while Jack has returned home for some kind of acceptance, his father’s resentment reaches out through the love that he has long preached; and it is his refusal to pain his father further that prompts the boy’s departure. And so, while Jack does not want to remind his father of their past, his leaving further stokes his father’s bitterness.

This novel moves too quietly to prompt me to seek out further novels by Robinson. I write this, even though such a decision may be my loss. For this author certainly probes the subtle family relationships that so often appeal to me. And she underscores this probing through characters who retain their spiritual faith as they contend with guilt, forgiveness, and the reality of human emotions. (November, 2019)