Gilead – Marilynne Robinson

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Winner of the Pulitzer Prize 2005

Gilead  is entirely made up of a letter from an old man, nearing death, to his young son. The letter aims to let the boy know about his life, and to teach him all the important lessons that he would like his son to know.

I’m afraid this is one of those quiet, observational books which I do not enjoy. It is beautifully written, but there is no plot, and as the old man’s thoughts meandered around I quickly lost interest.

I remember a slice of moon, no more than that. It was a very clear night, or morning, very still, and then there was such energy in the things transpiring among those trees, like a storm, like travail. I stood there a little out of range, and I thought, It is all still new to me. I have lived my life on the prairie and a line of oak trees can still astonish me.

I also found the first person narrative to be quite annoying – don’t ask me why – it is just one of those things which I dislike when reading!

The book is packed with religious quotes. The old man was a preacher, and so almost all of his thoughts are backed up with quotes from the bible. If you like reading Christian books, then this will be an added bonus for you, but I’m afraid it was an added irritant for me.

Overall, I’m afraid this just wasn’t for me.

If you enjoy reading gentle wisdom, in beautifully written prose, and don’t mind when books have no plot, then you’ll love it.


I read this in preparation for reading Home, which has been short listed for the Orange Prize this year. Is the writing style of Home similar to this?

I think this is the most disappointing Pulitzer winner I have read so far. Which Pulitzer winner have you found disappointing?

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  1. Sandy says:

    I can’t give much opinion on Pulitzers because I just haven’t read enough of them. But I don’t believe reflective wisdom would be my cup of tea either. I don’t know…maybe it the right mood, perhaps, but when am I ever in that type of mood? There is nothing even close to that in my personality!

  2. Jackie says:

    Sandy – Perhaps it’s something we’ll appreciaite when we’re older? I’m not one to reflect on the past – I look to the future too much – maybe that is why I just don’t like this type of book?

  3. I’m not a “prize winning” type of reader; however, I do read them on occasion. I have discovered that if I’m in the right frame of mind, I can enjoy this style of book. “Gentle wisdom, in beautiful written prose” is a draw for me, but I do prefer plots. :) This book is on my TBR Shelf, so one day I’ll get to it, and I think I have Home (the book following this one) on my iPod.

  4. FleurFisher says:

    I generally like quiet observational bboksbut this one left me cold I’m afraid. I was mondering about rereading in case I was just in the wrong mood when I read it, but now I’m thinking probably not.

  5. Diane says:

    I liked the audio version when i listened to this one, but i did not like her most recent book: Home.

  6. Beth F says:

    Thanks for reading this for me. I was pretty sure it wasn’t for me, and I now I know to just put this one out of my mind.

  7. Jackie says:

    I don’t like having this much responsibility over people’s reading lists! Loads of people love this book, so please don’t rule it out on my account, as you all know that I am just a fan of plot driven books.

    Diane – In some ways I’m pleased that Gilead and Home are different enough for you to like one and not the other, but now I’m worried that I’ll like Home even less! I should get round to reading it next week, so I’ll let you know!

  8. Steph says:

    Oh dear. I purchased this at the used bookstore because I had heard so many great things about it, but I have been putting off reading it because I don’t think it’s really going to be my cup of tea. I do probably value good writing above a good story, but that being said, I’m not sure this one is going to do it for me… Thanks for the honest review!

  9. claire says:

    You are so right about the plot, there isn’t much. But I’m one of those people who appreciates great writing even without a story, so I loved this. However, I have no plans of reading Home, as I’ve read that it’s inferior to Gilead, and that it’s just the same story, only told by Glory and focused on John Ames Boughton. I don’t think I’d enjoy reading two books of the same story told in different perspectives, unless the story or plot is extremely interesting, as in this case we know it isn’t. The book is gorgeous but it’s the writing and thoughtfulness that makes it so, not the story. I loved your review, by the way.

  10. Jackie says:

    Steph – Why don’t you try the first few pages? It won’t take long for you to gauge whether this one is for you or not – it starts off in the same style as the rest of the book. I gave it the benefit of the doubt, but unfortunately it didn’t improve/change.

    Claire – I’m really intrigued by Home, as I’m not sure how it can be the same plot from a different perspective – there was no plot!!

  11. David Nolan says:

    I too found Gilead rather hard-going. Thank you for making me feel less guilty about having awarded a Ken Follett book a greater number of stars. (The Follet book in question was “Pillars of the Earth”, a ripping yarn but hardly great literature. Christianity also features prominently, which is about the only similarity between the two, but the Christianity in Pillars in a much more earthy, and far less reflective.)

    The only other recent Pullitzer I have read (I think) is Cormac Murphy’s “The Road”. I wasn’t exactly bowled over by that one either. Sometimes my reaction to the finest modern writing is rather like my attitude towards opera or jazz. I am glad that such things are there, but they don’t excite me in the way that a lovely tune or a nineteenth century novel might do. The latter so often combine great art with a good tale.

  12. Jackie says:

    David – Thank you for taking the time to leave such a thoughtful comment.

    Don’t feel guilty about not awarding highly regarded books a large number of stars. It is all down to personal taste – taking a food example – we don’t all love olives, and that is no reflection of how good the olive grower is!

    It sounds as though you like plot driven novels like I do. Why don’t you try The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay or Middlesex (or even Gone with the Wind if you have a lot of spare time on your hands!), all pulitzers I have loved. Perhaps I should give Pillars of the Earth a try – I’m sure it won an important award too.

    PS. I’m not a fan of opera or jazz either!

  13. Karen says:

    I often find that a lot of prize winning books just go over my head – I’m ok with that, as long as I am enjoying what I am reading I don’t really care how many prizes it has or hasn’t won! I did love Gilead when I read it a while ago though. I think you have captured it perfectly in your review Jackie – it is definitely a character and not a plot book. I’m the opposite to you in that I don’t care if a book has any kind of a plot – as long as it has a main character I feel I could listen to for hours!

  14. I read about this book and I didn’t think it was something I wanted to read either.

  15. megan says:

    This was an interesting review, because I’ve just borrowed Home from the library, but wasn’t sure if I should read Gilead first. I’ve read the first few pages on Amazon a few times, but they haven’t really captured my attention – I have a feeling for the same reasons you didn’t really find it engaging.

    Hmmm…! I’ve heard so many good reviews about it though, I’m completely in two minds.

  16. Jackie says:

    Karen – I agree – if I enjoy a book I don’t care how many prizes it has won, but I do tend to read a lot of prize winning books, as in general the quality is better than those which haven’t won awards.

    I’m pleased you enjoyed Gilead, but have to admit that there are not many people/characters I could listen to for hours without getting bored. I guess this is just a reflection of my personality – I’m not the type of person who likes sitting on a beach doing nothing – I like running off to do adventurous things, so my taste in books reflects this uneasiness at doing nothing/listening to people rambling about past experiences.

    Candy _ I think our book tastes are quite similar, so this may be a good book for you to avoid!

    Megan – I was unsure about whether to read Gilead first as well. I’ve heard that Home makes sense without reading Gilead first, but if you have read it then it adds to your enjoyment.

  17. raidergirl3 says:

    Is the writing style of Home similar to this?
    God, I hope not.

    Which Pulitzer winner have you found disappointing?
    The Hours, The Stone Diaries, Beloved,

  18. Carrie K. says:

    This is one of the books I’ve always felt guilty for not liking (Poisonwood Bible is another one). Everyone loved it – it won an award – blah, blah, blah. I had to force myself to finish it, because I kept thinking, “They’re all saying it’s soooooo good – you must be missing something!”

  19. Jackie says:

    Raidergirl3 – Beloved is one of those symbolic books which requires a bit of effort. I didn’t really enjoy reading it, but I can appreciate it now. I haven’t read the other two yet, but I’ve heard lots of good things about the Stone Diaries – hopefully I won’t find it disappointing.

    Carrie – Everyone seems to love The Poisonwood Bible – I hope to read it soon, so I’ll let you know what I think then – I’m often alone in disliking a book, so I know how you feel.

  20. Kim says:

    You know, I hated this book for the first 100 pages or so, but, because of the great press it had received, I carried on reading. I decided to stop being impatient with the plodding narrative at that point and tried to understand the motives and feelings of the reverend…as soon as I changed my thought process, I instantly fell in love with the book and couldn’t put it down. I was as surprised as anyone by this because usually, like you, I really enjoy a great ripping yarn and get horribly bored listening to somebody drone on for a while. It was a fascinating book to me, just because of the change of heart I had.

  21. Jackie says:

    Kim – Well done! I’m really pleased you managed to have a change of heart. I don’t think I’m as patient as you – I did read all the way to the end, and was rewarded with a few good sections, but overall it just wasn’t for me.

  22. Simon S says:

    I will give my final verdict when finsih this tomorrow morning! Promise.

  23. Wendy says:

    Jackie: I felt EXACTLY as you did with this one – bored would be the word I’d choose to describe how I felt reading it. I don’t think I’ll be rushing out to buy Home any time soon.

  24. Jackie says:

    Wendy – I’ve just finished Home, and if anything, it’s worse! I wouldn’t recommend you go and get it at all!

  25. Wendy says:

    Thanks for the heads up, Jackie – I had a feeling it would not be one I’d want to read!

  26. Michelle says:

    I’m with you on this one. I tried reading this awhile back but couldn’t focus my attention on it at all. It was put aside never to be picked up again!

  27. Geraldine says:

    Help! I

    I received Gilead as a gift a few years ago and it has been sitting on my shelf ever since. Every time I reach for a new read, I read its blurb and never feel inclined to give a go!

    A fellow bookworm colleague of mine was telling me that she had read Home and loved it. She had started Gilead a couple of times without success until recently. She really enjoyed it when she managed to get into it.

    However, here is the dilemma…What order does one read them in?? My friend said a friend of hers read Gilead first and enjoyed that order too. Is there a correct or best order??

    1. Jackie says:

      Hi Geraldine! I’m not an expert, but I always try to read books in the order they were published, so I’d read Gilead first and then Home. I would avoid reading them too close together though, as they are very similar. It is possible to read Home without having read Gilead though.

      I hope you enjoy reading both books, but have to admit that the blurb didn’t appeal to me and I didn’t enjoy the book – lots of people do though!


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