Reading this book was an incredibly intense experience for me, and I’m not going to so much try to review this book as to tell you what reading it was like for me (which is pretty much the whole vibe of this “book review” blog of mine here).
I’ve read and loved all three of Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful novels set in the fictional town of Gilead: Gilead, Home, and Lila. Of the three, Home was my favourite. It tells the story of the aging Presbyterian minister Robert Boughton, and two of his many children who return home in midlife — his virtuous and reliable daughter Glory, and his ne’er-do-well black-sheep son Jack. It’s a kind of Prodigal Son story, with an older sister rather than an older brother, a father who tries hard to fling wide the doors of welcome but struggles with his fears and prejudices, and Jack, the beloved prodigal, who cannot quite muster the appropriate prodigal penitence even for things he is genuinely sorry for.
Home leaves Jack’s story on an unresolved note, and the novel that came after it, Lila, focuses on a different character and covers the same time period, so if, like me, you wanted to know “what happened to Jack,” you would be no further along at the end of Lila. So when I saw that Robinson had a new book coming out simply titled Jack, I thought I might finally get that longed-for resolution.
Short version: I didn’t, but also, I did.
Long version, which I’ll try to do with minimal spoilers: these four novels are not really a series (a tetralogy?) in the way you might imagine — that is, they belong together, with the same group of characters centred around the same Iowa small town in the 1950s, but they don’t move forward chronologically as you might expect a four-book series to do. At the end of Gilead (and the end of Home, which covers the same time period from different points of view), you are as far ahead as you are ever going to get, chronologically, in this series. Lila goes further back in time to show the events in Lila’s life that led up to her coming to Gilead and marrying Reverend Ames; Jack also begins much earlier than the events of Home and Gilead, showing the backstory of Jack’s prodigal life in St. Louis (this is the only one of the four books where characters spend no time in Gilead) and his relationship with Della, the woman we meet as his wife in Home.
So, if I was hoping this novel would answer the questions of what happened to Jack after the last pages of Home — it did not. In fact, if I was hoping (which I was, for much of the book) to get the story of what led him to come back home in Home — I also did not get that. Instead, this is the earlier story of how a man who is a self-recognized loser, alcoholic, sometime-homeless-person and ex-con falls in love with a respectable young teacher hoping to build a good life for herself; it’s also the story of how a white man in 1950s Missouri falls in love with a Black woman in a society where neither the white nor the Black community has any place for such a couple.
I just reread my review of Home from 12 years ago when it came out, and what I wrote about that book is also absolutely true of this book — there’s something about Robinson’s writing, and these characters she’s created, that makes me want to read with my breath held:
“I tried to read this book slowly (which, as you know, is nearly impossible for me), partly because I never wanted it to end, and partly because I was afraid the ending would break my heart. Sure enough, I didn’t get the resolution I’d hoped for after the end of Gilead, though the ending of Home does take us one tiny step further down the hard road of redemption. There are no easy, sentimental happy endings with Marilynne Robinson; she leaves the reader to imagine their own ending, with enough hope to believe that grace will, in the end, touch everyone who longs for it.”
The same is true of the ending of Jack: no sentimentality; no easy resolutions — but hope.
(I do have thoughts about how the ending of Jack informs the later events of the ending of Home, but they would definitely be spoilery for both books and I won’t post them here — however, if anyone who’s read both books wants to discuss that question, bring it up in comments and I’ll let you know what I think!)