Reviewed by Ambrea
In the opening of Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, readers are introduced to Reverend John Ames. A Congregationalist minster, Ames has spent his entire life in Gilead, like his father before him, and he knows he will die there. He picks up pen and paper with the intention of writing a letter for his young son, but his short, poignant letter quickly turns into a memoir that shares Ames’s life experiences and his family history. He recalls memories from his childhood, experiences from his clerical life, his short marriage to his first wife and his marriage to Lila, his remarkable second wife, and all the tragedies and triumphs he has faced in a very long lifetime. In his writing, John Ames seeks to connect to his son, who he knows will have only distant memories of his father, and reconcile himself with his growing age, his failing health, and his wavering faith.
Despite his designation as a member of the clergy, Ames is a flawed individual. In his candid entries, which span generations of family history, he reveals he has instances of jealousy and distrust, moments of frustration with his congregation, fits of passion (especially around young Jack Boughton, whom he treated as a son), and unmistakable encounters with his own doubts about God, much to his chagrin. James Ames is not a perfect man, but he is a good man—and I think that’s exactly what makes him so intriguing and what makes Gilead such a compelling novel to read.
An English professor once pointed out that truly good men sometimes seem to come few and far between in literature. As a man who has enjoyed his life, simple as it may be, Ames makes an interesting study into the life of an “average Joe” and a clergyman, who is attempting to balance his faith and his human passions. His faith, his candor, his goodness, and his willingness to admit his own faults make him a truly unique character in a world where sin often makes the story. His story is a beautiful, poignant epic that appreciates the complexities of the human condition and offers insight into a life well-lived.
Marilynne Robinson, I noticed, made some unique stylistic decisions in writing her novel. For one thing, she doesn’t designate separate chapters in Gilead. Aside from the occasional division between individual anecdotes, Robinson essentially leaves Ames to his own devices in a semi-stream of consciousness journal. While this provides the novel with the illusion of being a legitimate diary, giving it that quality of intimacy it might not have had otherwise, I found it could sometimes leave me searching for a break between pages so I could put the book aside for a few minutes. Although I would sometimes long for a short breather, I found I liked the feeling that I was privy to John Ames’ most private thoughts.
I also enjoyed the realism of John Ames’s character. His regrets, his personal sorrows, and his feelings of guilt frequently permeate Gilead; however, he is a man who also illustrates the simple joys of living. Although he writes in anticipation of his death, which he suspects can come at any time, I got the distinct impression that Ames was gradually finding peace in the world and coming to terms with his flagging faith, his fears of losing his son’s affections to another man, and his failing health. In that respect, I found Robinson’s novel to be quite beautiful despite its fatalistic undertones, because I began to treasure Ames for his flawed human nature and his ephemeral qualities.
Overall, I loved reading Gilead. It’s a beautiful piece of work that’s lovingly created, full of characters I understand—characters I can relate to—and stories that feel so vibrant, so real, that I was hard pressed not to lose myself in them.