Gilead, Home, Lila, & Jack; Four novels by Marilynne Robinson

Okay, it’s been quite a while since my last post. That’s partly because there’s been a lot going on (Springtime! Olympics! Travel!) and partly because I held off on reviews until I finished all four of Marilynne Robinson’s novels set in the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa. Now that I’ve finished, it’s time for a combined recap and some stack ranking.

But before I go there, it needs to be said that Robinson’s writing, across all four books, is impressive: it’s eloquent, natural, timeless, and thought-provoking. I paused more than once just to take in the loveliness of her writing.

Secondly, I loved all four books for daring to take on really big, universal themes: love, family, race, class, forgiveness, religion. Robinson’s novels seem to acknowledge, whether implicitly or explicitly, that these themes touch all of our lives in different—yet equally meaningful—ways.

Finally, I want to say that across all four books, I fell in love with with characters Robinson created. They are flawed but they feel realistic and consistent. They are relatable and complex.

But as for my ranking of the four books, here it goes:

My number one favorite was Home. This is a story primarily about siblings and that hits close to home for me. The main themes are similar to the other three books—forgiveness, empathy, love, family—but it was the siblings’ loyalty and the growth of their relationship in this story that resonated with me.

Also, in terms of both character and plot development, I thought Home was by far the most nuanced, complicated, and realistic. Our principle characters – Jack, Glory, Boughton, and John Ames – have relationships fraught with troubled, sensitive histories. Throughout the novel I felt I could consistently feel those tensions boiling just beneath the surface of things, coming to a head in convincing and interesting ways.

In a close second place I’d put Gilead. The format (a long letter from father to son) hooked me at the start and the principle themes came through so powerfully that I was committed to reading the rest of the series. Also, being the first of Marilynne Robinson’s novels that I’d read, I was in my honeymoon period here, still swooning over her easy, eloquent writing.

Third…we’ll this is hard because Lila and Jack were super close for me. But ultimately I would have put Lila in third and Jack in fourth, only because Lila is set in Gilead and features many of the same cast of characters as Home and Gilead. Like Jack, it’s really backstory to the previous novels, never coming into the present day that the first two explore.

Admittedly, I was most excited for Jack, because throughout the other three novels, he’s undeniably the most controversial character. But while Jack’s backstory was interesting and beautifully written, I didn’t feel I learned anything new about Jack, and so I was slightly less entertained by his personal history than I was of his role in Home or Gilead.

All in all, these were wonderful novels, and Marilynne Robinson’s writing proved itself timeless and skilled. I’d definitely recommend these novels – especially Home and Gilead – to anyone who doesn’t mind a character-driven novel and is looking for a lovely, subtle family story. You can find all four books on my bookshop page.

And if you’re wondering where you can find a beautiful ceramic mug like the one featured in these photos (the one that was filled with coffee as I read through each of these wonderful books), look no further than Sound Ceramics. It’s my absolute favorite, local ceramics store. Be sure to check them out!

The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy

I’d heard of “The God of Small Things” by Arundhati Roy many times. I finally decided to pick it up after a recommendation from a favorite fellow Bookstagrammer, and oh, my heart. This book is so subtle and poetic, tragic and astounding. I can already tell it’s the kind I’ll be thinking about for a long time after I turn the last page.

Set in India, Roy tells the story of a tragic event that causes the unraveling of a “Touchable” (read: upper class) family in India. It’s not a happy tale, but I found it instructive and powerful on so many levels. Roy explores and challenges India’s caste-based social system, prejudices, and traditions, while also touching on broader questions around love, trauma, childhood, and power. 

If there was any drawback to this one, it might be it’s complexity. There are a lot of characters, and, coupled with a non-linear narrative and a very particular writing style, I was occasionally challenged to keep the characters, relationships, and timelines straight. By about midway through the book, I had everything figured out, but it should be acknowledged that this isn’t an easy read. It demands that the reader be patient and attentive.

As a side note: this novel was especially interesting after reading Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson, which sheds a lot of light on India’s caste system and compares with our own caste system in the US (yes, we have a caste system… I’ll let Wilkerson convince you). I highly recommend Caste one as a companion to this novel. 

Most of “The God of Small Things” was read in the late evenings and early mornings, usually with a mug of tea or coffee in hand, so it feels appropriate to pair it here with one of my favorite mugs from Sound Ceramics. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out their one-of-kind wares before you cozy up with this novel. 

A Sounds Ceramics Collaboration & Circe, by Madeline Miller

I’m so excited to be kicking off a collaboration with Sound Ceramics, in which we will be pairing gorgeous mugs with my latest book reviews, as well as some of my old favorites. Be sure to visit the Sound Ceramics store for more cool merchandise!

First up, a stunning mug and a stunning cover: this is Circe, by Madeline Miller. I really loved mythology and fantasy when I was young, but it’s been a while since I’ve read much of either. After reading Circe, I’m feeling like a kid again. Miller takes classic mythology and makes familiar stories more compelling (and easy to read) than ever. Ancient heroes, gods, and monsters became so much more nuanced as characters, so that I both loved and hated them. It was really hard to put this one down.

Another thing I really loved was that I felt as though I was not only reading a great story, but also learning a lot about ancient beliefs and practices. I kept researching the characters to learn more about their myths, and putting other mythological classics on my list (including Miller’s other novel, Song of Achilles, so you can bet that will be coming up soon, too).

If you’ve read this one and know of other books like it, please be sure to share in the comments below, because I just can’t wait to dive into more of this type of literature.

No One Is Talking About This, by Patricia Lockwood

There was so much buzz about Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This, that I couldn’t wait to dive in. And now I can definitely say I understand why it received so much praise in terms of timeliness and originality. The book’s structure and subject matter both touch on things that we’ve all grown oh too familiar with: our obsession with the internet, ceaseless connectivity, ever-shorter attention spans, and our disconnectedness from one another.

And yet, for all it’s relevance and powerful messages, I admit I struggled to get through this one. The story is divided into two parts, and the first is utterly fragmented, random, and practically without plot, so that I didn’t feel invested in the protagonist (or anything, really… and perhaps to some extent that is the point).

The second part of the novel is much different than the first. A powerful plot emerges, a cast of characters is introduced, and suddenly the narrative is so compelling that I read most of it in one sitting. The story in part two, it should be said, merits a content warning (TW: terminal illness, child death) and I was utterly unprepared for how devastated I would be (especially as a new parent). And though I have to recognize the skilled writing that drew me in during this second half of the book, it was really quite difficult to get that far in this book for me.

If you’ve read this one, I’d really love to hear your thoughts, because I realize how original and relevant it was from start to finish. Did you struggle with the fragmented writing? Did you enjoy the narrative? Let me know!

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

If someone had given me a synopsis of this book before I dove in, I probably would have rolled my eyes. A global pandemic? I would have said I’ve had enough of that to last a lifetime, thank you. But in fact this book completely captivated me (and I learned that Emily St. John Mandel wrote Station Eleven before Coronavirus which is irrelevant but interesting). The writing is engaging and the plot is well-crafted; Mandel keeps you constantly on the edge of your seat.

A few other things I loved about the book: references to Shakespeare and religion for me to nerd out to, a badass female protagonist, and some very complex characters.

And of course, it’s impossible to bring up this book right now without also commenting on the TV series adaptation (which I just finished). I’m not much of a TV buff in the first place, but for me the series was pretty underwhelming, mostly because I found that the plot modifications made the story somewhat less convincing. However, I know a lot of readers that have loved the series, so I’d say it’s worth giving it a shot! And definitely – DEFINITELY – give this book a shot.

Memorial, by Bryan Washington

I’ve been wanting to read Memorial all year, partly given it’s broad acclaim and partly out of a desire to support my fellow UNO alum, Bryan Washington. So naturally I started this one as soon as I got it (as a holiday gift from yet another UNO alum!). And, to summarize, I really enjoyed this book.

Firstly, I thought the plot was so convincing and intriguing. Brief synopsis: a couple is forced to reconsider their close relationships and life goals when one of them unexpectedly travels abroad and leaves his mother and partner to live together. This feels so probable and yet, so strange. I found myself eager to know what would happen to each of the three main characters.

Additionally, I was really interested in the intertextual nature of this novel – it relies on traditional prose, but also photographs and text messages to tell a broader narrative.

The only thing I struggled with a bit while reading Memorial was it’s occasional use of crude language and description when I felt that something more subtle would do. For me, it was a little as though crass language was leveraged for shock value at times.

Otherwise, I really enjoyed the writing and voice of this book. It was easy to read, modern, and convincing. Give it a shot!

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett

I think I keep saying this but: I’ve been meaning to pull this book off my shelf for quite some time (and of course, to watch the film adaptation afterwards). Well, I finally got around to it, and I see why so many people have been captivated by this story: Stockett keeps the reader turning pages with a great plot, great writing, interesting characters, and so much tension.

This is a story about the struggle for equality, the courage it takes to stand up for what’s write in the face of inequality, and more than anything, it’s about elevating Black voices and Black stories. Of course, it’s a little hard to ignore that this is a story by a white writer, and that the hero protagonist is white, so in that sense the central theme of elevating Black voices seems a little… ironic. Even a bit problematic. Nevertheless, I think Stockett has written a great novel with a powerful message at it’s core.

I should probably add that, just after finishing the novel, I watched the film adaptation. As always, the book is better, and some things were left out or underdeveloped in the film, but overall I enjoyed it.

A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara

I’d heard this was a beautiful, sad story before I started it, and that was about all I knew. But both words – beautiful, sad – are woefully inadequate to describe this novel. This is a story about the power of friendship, but the characters in this novel overcome every kind of obstacle and injustice: addiction, sexual abuse, physical abuse, depression, self-doubt, poverty, grief, and more…. And yet, the story of friendship is really what wins out in the end, and I think that is such a testament to Yanagihara’s storytelling ability. She builds characters that are so convincing and engaging that the reader not only roots for them, but cares for them, and at a very minimum wants to know what happens to them. These are characters I will never forget – friendships I will never forget.

I recently listened to an interview with Hanya Yanagihara discussing this book and was surprised at the professional and somewhat distanced tone she used when speaking of this novel, which is so full of emotion that I was often brought to tears (and left utterly speechless when my husband asked what was wrong). That is the kind of writing I love, and yet, I could not wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone. There is too much pain in this story, too much heartbreak, too many trigger warnings.

If you’ve read this one, I would love to hear from you. I could talk about it for days. If you haven’t read it, proceed with caution…it’s heavy. Worth it, but very heavy.

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

I’ve been meaning to read this one for a very long time – in fact, I’ve been meaning to read anything by Margaret Atwood for a very long time, and I finally got around to The Handmaid’s Tale this month. So now, at long last, I understand what all the hype is about.

I had really high expectations coming into this one, and for the most part, Atwood lived up to them. She does an incredible job of building a dystopian society that is somehow both near and far from the one we live in today – a feat that is both impressive and terrifying. (If you’re wondering how that something can be both near and far, consider one huge theme of the book: women’s rights. It’s hard to imagine a near future in which women can’t own property or have autonomy over their own bodies, and yet look at a few of the recent news stories… Texas abortion law… Britney Spears…). Within this dystopia, Atwood explores so many complex themes in addition to woman’s rights: the nature of memory, the importance of language and text, the role of government in society, and so many more.

The only place where I was just a little bit let down was that I felt like the final chapter, which is formatted as a dissertation of sorts on the society that the book depicts, seems to be used as a sort of way to explain questions that are unclear throughout the book. I was a little disappointed that they couldn’t be explained earlier or as part of the narrative, but that’s me getting picky…

Overall, I would recommend this to a lot of folks I know, and you can bet I’ll be listening to a lot of podcasts and book talks about this one. And of course, there is a Netflix series and a sequel (The Testaments) that I’ll be diving into soon as well!

Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke

I haven’t been so captivated by a book since before my daughter was born (and that was over 4 months ago!). I simply couldn’t put Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke, down. Firstly, it’s incredibly unique: it blends our complex, busy, present world with a fantastical, simple, barren one. But if “Fantasy” is a no-go for you, this one is still worth a go – trust me on that. In my opinion, this book could just as easily be categorized as a psychological thriller, mystery, literary fiction, or sci-fi. It really has a little of everything.

Most importantly, though there are just two characters for much of the book, Clarke is somehow able to keep Piranesi’s voice interesting and the novel’s action moving quickly, even in a world where nothing much happens beyond the tides coming and going. It’s truly remarkable.

But beyond just the gripping plot and entrancing voice, there is so much happening in this novel on a thematic level. It asks huge questions of the reader: what happens when we’re left alone? What does it mean to be in touch with one’s surroundings? These questions (and so many others) are, perhaps, even more intriguing and insightful given our recent experiences during a global pandemic – sometimes Piranesi’s experiences hit really close to home.

With so many ethical, philosophical, and thematic overtones, I found it especially helpful after finishing this one to listen in on a few podcasts with the author. In particular, I’d recommend this discussion with Susanna Clarke, from Vox FM (I listened on Spotify, so you can find it there as well!).

10 for 10 I recommend this one to just about anyone.

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