Saturday, December 3, 2011

#65 Reading New Authors: Home by Marilynne Robinson

I decided to join an online book club with girls that I met on an online wedding planning forum. We all had September 2011 weddings and it turned out there were a bunch of book-nerds like me and all of us wanted to doing a book club together! It’s exciting for me because I’ve always wanted to join a book club but never have, it’s a good way to open myself up to new books, and it’s nice to get other people’s perceptions of books that I’ve read. One of the girls got the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die list and we’re going to be choosing one book a month off of that.

We started off with Home by Marilynne Robinson, a Pulitzer Prize winner! I had never heard of it, had no idea what it was about, and was excited about trying out something completely new.

My excitement died within the first 10 pages.

Have you ever seen the musical Urinetown? If you haven’t, you should. It’s great. And at the beginning of Urinetown, Officer Lockstock cuts off Little Sally when she starts trying to clarify what’s happening onstage to the audience by telling her that “Nothing ruins a good story like too much exposition.”

Someone should have given that same advice to Ms. Robinson. I started wanting to bang my head over the amount of exposition. Not only did I have to sift through at least fifty pages of the main character, Glory’s, memories of her childhood (and it felt like more), but I thought most of it could have been cut. I do not need three different and distinct stories to show how extremely Christian and passive-aggressive Glory’s father was. No matter how beautifully written the exposition is, I’m going to get antsy waiting for something to happen. For the story to start. For something to happen in the present instead of the past.

The main plot centers around Glory and her father’s relationship with her estranged, black sheep of a brother Jack. Glory has returned to her childhood home to take care of her sick father, a retired reverend whose piety and extreme form of Christian modesty, humility and charity overwhelmed his children’s early lives. While she is there, her father receives a letter from Jack, saying that he is coming to stay for awhile.

All of Glory’s life, most of her father’s attention has been centered on Jack, trying to redeem his one and only delinquent child. Personally, the impression I got from the long and tedious exposition, I think that Jack would have been better off if his father had disciplined him. Instead his father took every single one of Jack’s pranks / delinquencies / misdeeds upon himself, blaming himself for his failure to reach Jack on a spiritual level. Jack never got punished, no, his father would just sadly reflect on how he had failed Jack as a father. As emotional abuse goes, it’s pretty twisted. As discipline, it’s completely ineffective.

The book finally picks up when Jack finally arrives, but it turns almost into a mystery novel. What has Jack been doing for the past 20 years while no one in the family has had contact with him? What happened between Glory and her (ex?) fiancé? Why is Jack so riled up by the Birmingham riots and equal rights for blacks? Who stole the money from the hardware store? Who is the mysterious person Jack writes daily letters to and why do they never write back? Will Jack ever find true acceptance from his father and the town of Gilead?

The problem is, there is no wrap-up at the end of this book. It is a beautifully written, fairly interesting, very realistic glimpse into the lives of these characters. But it is just a glimpse. The book opens a window into their lives, which have been going on before the book starts, and continue on after the book ends. We do not get an “ending,” because their stories keep on going. The answers to a couple major mysteries are revealed but never resolved. We find out the “who,” the “what,” the “where,” and the “why,” but unlike a conventional mystery novel there is no final confrontation.

This is not a book to read if you want everything satisfactorily and tidily put into its place in the end. It can’t, because this book is not the entire lives of these characters, only a few significant months of their lives. There is no happily ever after. There isn’t even a hint of what kind of ever after they might be headed towards. There are only pages and pages of the past, and then a thorough grounding the present.

I wasn’t a huge fan of this kind of writing. I like to read because there can be neat endings and resolutions. An ending where I finally know everything, where all the questions are answered and all the mysteries resolved is as satisfying as a good meal to me. Ms. Robinson presented all kinds of conflicts, raised the stakes, found piles of obstacles… and in the end resolved nothing.

It took awhile for me to get into the book, because the beginning was tedious and over-done, and the actual content of the plot was frustrating. I wanted things to work out for Jack. I wanted Jack to grow up. I wanted him to stop acting like a kicked dog. I wanted Glory to find a life of her own. I wanted her to stop being something other than a passive observer. I wanted her to really live. If they ever do any of these things, I will not know, because they did not do it during this glimpse into their lives. My own life has its own unresolved frustrations and tedious activities… why do I want to read about someone else’s, especially when I can’t even have a satisfying end?

I did not feel like it was one of the 1001 books that I must read before I die. I felt it wasted time in my life that could have been spent doing something better.

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