Book review: Home, by Marilynne Robinson

This book resonated with me far more than Gilead did.

Themes of family, difficult siblings, whether or not you can return home (what is home?), and whether you can ever be forgiven or feel like you belong, despite all the professions of love. All of those are profoundly explored in ways that hit home with me, that felt very real, even though I haven’t been in exactly the same situation as Glory and Jack (JAB, as I call him).

I still fluctuated between sympathy and irritation with JAB in this book, as the author surely intended. Mostly, though, I just wanted to give Glory a fucking vacation.

From early on in the book, Home‘s depiction of awkward family relations felt very real. How even a sibling can be a stranger; how awkwardly you move around them, how you disappoint, irritate, and strive to appease them.

I liked JAB better here, found him more sympathetic outside the confines of Ames’ memoir. I got a better grasp of the depth of his feelings, of his regret and shame and earnest desire to be more respectable, to not be mistrusted and shunned. Also, his depth of feeling for the civil rights activities, for what happened to Emmett Till, did a lot to make him likable.

But he started to get tiresome again around the midway point. He demanded more and more of Glory’s emotional labor for him, constant reassurances and placating as he wouldn’t shut up about how he imagined people saw him. JAB is a sad sack, after all. As she said to him once: “Do you really imagine you are the only miserable person in this house?” And I got more and more irritated with how she constantly waited on him, nagged him to eat, worked endlessly to ease things for him. (I’ll admit I’m not the maternal sort, and being confined to that role of housekeeper and nanny for relatives I’m not even that attached to is a personal nightmare.)

To make an effort to be fair, though: JAB was clearly dealing with alcoholism and depression without any professional services, and one mustn’t underestimate that. So the book does an excellent job again at demonstrating the weight that falls on other family members, when such conditions go untreated.

I was also impressed with this book’s depiction of an old man — Boughton. He and his flaws are more familiar to me than Ames’ type — the infuriating and stodgy racism, the querulous passive-aggressive language of the elderly preacher. But it is also clear that he genuinely loves his wayward son and, even when his mental faculties are dwindling, he’s haunted by any possible way he might have failed him, by anything he should have done better and ought to apologize for.

My favorite part of the book was the one conversation Glory, JAB, and their father had, as his mind began to fail and yet opened a window when unvarnished truths fell out, coherent and unencumbered the way they had been before and would be after. When JAB made his hopeless attempt to convince his father that he believed in Scripture, and his father called him out on the lie, on the pathetic attempt to appease a dying man before JAB made his exit once again. Then Boughton spoke again of the awful pain JAB had inflicted when he hadn’t come home for his mother’s funeral, of how Boughton had struggled to find peace with his son.

The truths expressed that night were so raw, yet so real — the perfect climax to all the slow-building scenes that came before it — that they stole my breath, more than any other moment in the book. For that scene alone, I’d recommend this book.

(I would also say that I really liked the older brother, Teddy, and felt for him. He seemed like a really good man.)

But in the end, I was frustrated with how Glory was the POV character, yet nearly all the focus was on JAB. I wanted more about her failed relationship, about what she looks forward to in life (besides not wanting to be stuck in her childhood house, which of course is what she ends with). More about her relationships with her many siblings, in-laws, nieces and nephews. I want to know what she wore to that one dinner where so much emphasis was put on her father’s and JAB’s clothes.

So the ending was a downer to me — well, I was pleased that she finally got to meet Dell and her nephew, and to give him a gift — that was a lovely encounter. But the image the book actually ended on (her stuck in that house as she’d long feared she would be, waiting for that one encounter with JAB’s son) was so bleak. Glory deserves so much more, and this captures my frustration with how her whole character was wrapped up in him.

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