There is a Balm in Gilead: Home by Marilynne Robinson

Home by Marilynne Robinson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Upon the return of his son, Jack, from a 20-year absence, Robert Boughton, the patriarch of the Boughton family, finds with some surprise and considerable anger, that he has become old and frail. He has worked his whole life to build a home for his children, especially for his wayward son, and he’s finally realizing that home isn’t a place where children stay; it’s a place children leave.

“All of them call it home, but they never stay,” he laments.

Glory and Jack, who have both returned home to try and make themselves whole again, are discovering something similar. Home isn’t a place where one can make oneself new; instead it’s a place where one reverts back to childhood habits and relationships without even meaning to. It’s a place of waiting and hoping but not of changing. To change, one must leave. And even then, the prospects for change are limited.

Robinson interwove this book beautifully with her incredible (and Pullitzer Prize-winning) Gilead. I was delighted (in kind of a dark way) with how my opinion of Jack changed in reading this book and seeing Glory’s view of him from the opinion I held of him seeing only Reverend Ames’ impressions of him in Gilead. Throughout most of this book, I really, really didn’t like Jack. He’s very manipulative and selfish. He calculates all of his actions based on how others will think of him or how he assumes they do think of him. “Truth” is a relative term to him. The nature of personal possession is similarly slippery in his estimation. He seems incapable of imagining that anyone could have a motive that doesn’t relate to him. Throughout his life, he’s refused closeness and comfort while condemning those around him for being distant. He makes choices that are almost guaranteed to result in failure, and then he uses the inevitable failure as further proof that he can accomplish nothing. And he pulls his family, especially his sister and his father, along with him, all the while insisting that he doesn’t want their concern or their love.

He’s just a jerk.

But he’s also this very tragic character for whom I can’t help but root even as he seems bent on failing, no matter what.

Glory, Jack’s sister, still the “baby” of the large family although 38 years old, still loves her brother and seeks his approval just as she did when she was five. She tries to anticipate his needs, she lights up when something she says makes Jack laugh and is despondent when he’s upset. She’s something of an enabler. She’s pitiful in her own way, but at least she’s self-reflective. She knows she’s pitiful, and she chooses to allow herself to be hurt rather than lose the tenuous connection she has with Jack.

With my description of the book as being about a jerk, an enabler, and an old man mired in self pity, this doesn’t sound like a terribly glowing review. Home admittedly is heart-rending and frustrating. But it’s also delicately and expertly written. And most of all it’s True in the capital-T sense of the word. I was thoroughly engrossed. This, I thought, is how families work. I have the sense that I can get insights about my own familial relationships reading Robinson’s work and perhaps grow more adept at recognizing the beauty in those relationships rather than only seeing the hassles and disappointments.

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