In Gilead, a sleepy little town in Iowa in 1956, the elderly minister Robert Boughton is dying, cared for by his unmarried adult daughter, Glory.
" 'Home to stay, Glory! Yes!' her father said, and her heart sank," begins Marilynne Robinson's latest novel, Home, which is a finalist for this year's National Book Award for fiction.
Interrupting the quiet procession of the pair's days together is a letter from Jack - the black sheep son and brother gone for 20 years. Now in his 40s, he has yet to live down the bad deeds of his youth: cutting classes, stealing and, most grievously to Boughton, fathering an illegitimate child with a girl he doesn't love.
Jack has missed out on the holidays, the reunions, even his mother's funeral. But now he is coming home, and Boughton welcomes him without reservation.
These characters will be familiar to readers of Gilead, Robinson's 2005 Pulitzer Prize winner. Not a sequel nor a prequel, Home eerily chronicles the same events as Gilead, but this time told from the perspective of Glory as she muddles through the drama of her brother's sudden reappearance.
Gilead was told by Boughton's best friend and fellow minister John Ames - Jack is his namesake - who married late in life. A luminous, touching novel, Gilead is the letter Ames writes to his little boy, telling everything he wants his son to know.
There is the story of the grandfather who brought the Ames family to Iowa before the Civil War to help John Brown fight for abolition, the one who "preached men into the Civil War." And there are all of Ames' thoughts on Christianity and theology, a gentle Protestantism that reveres a loving God and tries to live up to the difficult task of loving one's neighbor.
Jack's return home in the second half of Gilead breaks Ames' reverie on the past and challenges his notions of forgiveness and redemption.
Jack's story is the center of Home, but even here, he remains an elusive, maddening character. Glory sees him as a lost soul in need of gentle care, and much of the novel is a sensitively detailed rendering of their deepening connection.
Boughton, initially thrilled by Jack's return, gradually realizes he hasn't yet forgiven Jack completely. The sentiment rankles him and bothers his conscience, both for the hidden grudge itself and for what it says about his own moral failings.
Though Jack throws himself into the tasks of helping Glory keep up the household - weeding the garden, repairing the old DeSoto in the garage - he's also a marginally repentant drunk, white-knuckling it through the visit until he's off on another bender. His first thoughts are always of himself, and he's quick to take offense at slights both real and imagined.
Jack is desperate to repair his life so he can reconnect with the good woman he left behind - the woman who has finally loved him enough, he says, that he can shake off his sadness. It's hard for us, as it is for his father and his sister, to take him at his word, and Jack knows it: "Say you do something terrible," Jack tells Glory. "And it's done. And you can't change it. Then how do you live the rest of your life? What do you say about it?" Later he says, "It is possible to know the great truths without feeling the truth of them. That's where the problem lies. In my case."
For the reader, it is an oddly jarring experience to read Home with all the knowledge of Gilead. Themes that are hinted at obliquely in Gilead - Jack's alcoholism, for instance - take center stage in Home. Conversely, the legacy of slavery made explicit in Gilead seems like a side issue for much of Home. (Rest assured that it's not).
Robinson's measured scenes of domestic life that hint at deeper currents beneath are at times overly measured, slow like the town itself. Nevertheless, it is a remarkable achievement that in two consecutive novels, Marilynne Robinson has used the town as a prism to examine themes at the heart of American experience: white Americans' culpability for slavery and its aftereffects, and a sophisticated theology of salvation and grace.
Angie Drobnic Holan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8573.
By Marilynne Robinson
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 336 pages, $25