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GILEAD, by Marilynne Robinson
Seventy-six years old and recently diagnosed with angina pectoris, John Ames is writing letters to the seven-year-old son he won't live to see grow up. Ames wants to leave the boy -- the product of a late and unlikely, and thoroughly happy, marriage to a woman much younger than he -- with a history of his "begats," and to tell him of the joy that he and his mother have brought to his life. The novel is set in 1956, but Ames' letters reach back in time to the Civil War, recounting the righteous fury that drove his abolitionist grandfather, the first John Ames, to conspire with John Brown and eventually fight in the war. Ames' son, who also carried the name John Ames, fought as well; unlike his father, however, the second Ames returned from war a committed pacifist, and the third Ames -- the book's narrator -- grew up amid a deep generational divide between his father and grandfather, the war's personal legacy to his family.

All three John Ameses are Congregationalist preachers in the small town of Gilead, Iowa, so Ames' letters also contain a good deal of spiritual rumination, as well as moral advice to his son. Written in a spare and elegant style, GILEAD is a meditation on family, faith, death, and forgiveness -- and also grace, that "ecstatic fire that takes things down to essentials." A devout Congregationalist herself, Marilynne Robinson waited 24 years after the publication of her first novel, HOUSEKEEPING, in 1981, to write GILEAD. Yet although the intervening decades saw a revival of Christian fundamentalism in America, perhaps the book's most singular achievement is its quality of being at once deeply spiritual and utterly nonpedantic; Robinson's faith clearly informs and inspires her writing but never slides into judgment or heavy-handedness. In a typically serene and lucid observation, for example, John Ames reflects at one point that "Love is holy because it is like grace -- the worthiness of the object is never really what matters."

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The American Novel