‘Life is too short to read boring books.’
‘It pains me to leave a book uncompleted, especially if that book has won a Pulitzer Prize and I have heard great things about it from various sources that I respect and it’s LESS THAN 250 PAGES!’
So I finished this book, but I struggled the whole time. There is no story. Or if there is, it is of a man slowly dying, which can be immensely powerful, but can also be the driest topic in all of plotdom. We meet John Ames as he approaches seventy-seven, recently diagnosed with a heart condition. He is also recently (as in, ten years ago) married to a woman some thirty years his junior, and also recently (as in, seven years ago) become a father. In an attempt to pass along to his son the wisdom of his years (since, by the time his son hits his teens, John will be dead), he begins a long letter recounting his history, and that of his father, and his grandfather, all of whom were pastors of a small-town church. It is a strange mix memoir and religious contemplation (both of which we’ll get to in a moment), and it’s told almost entirely in narrative. There is hardly any dialogue, few scenes, and no objectivity. Because we are rarely allowed to see other characters act or hear them speak, we deprived of the chance to form our own opinions about them, and are forced to take John Ames’ word for everything. Also, we are bored.
So, memoir and religious contemplation. I understand that a fiction piece can, and usually should, stand for something greater than the sum of its parts. However, I believe the sum of the parts should stand alone, and Gilead does not, deprived of its Christian musings, make for a readable novel. Nothing happens. As for Robinson’s (or, I suppose, Ames’) meditations…well. I suppose if you were completely new to the idea of Christianity as a viable, intelligent religion, then this might all be new and interesting. I wondered often, throughout the reading, whether I was too steeped in religious dogma to find anything novel in what Robinson had to say. I mean, I enjoyed some parts. She has this one particularly fabulous bit about (ironically) the futility of defending one’s faith, but that’s only about a page or so long. As for the rest of it, there are others who have done it shorter and better (see: Lewis, C.S.).I guess what I’m trying to say is, if you like to chat with your old, small-towny, Presbyterian granddad, then this is the book for you. If you like things to happen, look elsewhere.Five caterpillars.