Book Club

Magpie Book Club: Home by Marilynne Robinson.

By: Jen Shoop

I have been a delinquent reader the past many months. I was optimistic for a spell and then found myself just wanting to sleep when I used to stay up reading. I am currently listening to James Clear’s Atomic Habits book, which seems to be enjoying something of a resurgence — I feel like everyone is listening to this at the moment. I remember it making a big splash back when it came out in 2018 and I was peripherally aware of its agenda. At the time, I thought — “Not for me.” But after a long season of permitting myself small pockets of grace in my various pursuits (go easy on yourself! it’s a pandemic!), I now feel as though I could stand to lace up the boots a bit. Perhaps others feel the same way, which might explain why I’ve been seeing it everywhere lately, and why the library indicated a 10-week wait for the audiobook. Anyhow, reading the book feels meta, mirror-like: I am reading about habit formation in order to form the habit to read more. I wish I’d read it earlier because making my way through Marilynne Robinson’s Home just prior required massive commitment and energy on my part. It was a slow read. I don’t know that I’d have finished it were it not for the arbitrary convening of a few girlfriends to discuss it over a bottle of red wine. Here is the thing: Robinson is intellectually dazzling. As a component of her constellation of writings, Home is, well, a home run. It is a sibling to her highly-praised Gilead book, re-telling much of the same story (the return of a wayward son to a religious family/community) from the perspective of another character. I typically enjoy such set-ups, which remind us rather vigorously to exercise circumspection in accepting the stories others put before us or — put more generously — the richness of approaching the same concept from multiple perspectives. They are also phenomenal feats of dexterity and intellectual clarity on the part of the author. In this case, there is such a dense and intellectually interesting nest of patterns and inversions to sort through, too: homes and exiles; siblings; sins lived out and atoned for across multiple generations; recursions; plot repetitions; etc. The main question I pondered: what is a home? It is provocative that Robinson named her first book “Gilead” (the geographical setting and “hometown” for the characters in both books) but the other the more metaphorical “Home.” Isn’t Gilead home for all of its characters? Is it not? What are we meant to take away from the delta between the two? There are also complex social issues raised, and head-on grapplings with Gospel, faith, and specifically predestination. This is Big Stuff — metaphysical! — and she writes through and around it all with precision and authority.

However. I feel as though the writing gets in the way of Robinson’s hyper-accurate grasp on the complicated and nuanced dynamics between family members and faith. Her writing reads like exposition. It is impressive, well-formed, but difficult to connect with on an emotional level, which presents as a problem in a book about family. At points, I felt as though I was reading something exegetical where I wanted something personal. I don’t know whether this critique is valid. Perhaps that is just her mode of writing, or perhaps it is her carefully calibrated tone for the book for reasons more esoteric than I can fetch. She is, certainly, writing within the context of the ecclesiastical, and several characters are ministers, so perhaps it all tracks in a general sense — but still, it felt as though something was out of key. And that made reading and specifically connecting with the characters difficult.

However, I did find myself musing on the gently overlapping themes of home, exile, movement, stasis, prison, escape, departure. She is clearly trying to tell us something about the homes we grow up with and the ones we choose. Perhaps, too, the ones chosen for us in some sense owing to familial dynamics? I feel a tug at the end of the line there: just last weekend, I was chatting with a mom who mentioned that she tries hard not to label any of her three children in a specific way. She mentioned one of her children has “particularly big emotions” and then rewound and said: “I mean, we all do – I am sensitive to not labeling her in any way, of making her feel like ‘the really dramatic one.'” And my goodness have we been wearing out the “Encanto” soundtrack (any other moms with “Encanto”-obsessed children?) and there, too, the theme of being pushed into and then finding oneself stuck in certain roles in a family. There is something sticky there: the observation that homes can be both safe spaces and quagmires, often with no mal-intent.

Have you read Home? What did you make of it? Did you prefer it to Gilead?

What else are you reading?


+There are many ways to read.

+The best book I’ve read in the last decade.

+An essay I revisit every few months.

+Are you a wool-gatherer?

+My longtime relationship with language.

Shopping Break.

+I am currently reading this thriller as a palate cleanser.

+Extra 25% off Mille’s sale section with code EXTRA25! I absolutely love (!) this dress and wore it a ton last summer. Can’t wait to pull it out again this season. I had to use the promo to buy this fun green printed top. Note that this brand runs really big.

+OMG these string lights are adorable.

+Swooning over this polka dot dress and this embroidered linen one. WOW.

+I love seamless racerback bras like this for layering underneath everyday dresses (I actually lived in these all last summer — 4 for $34!)

+This scalloped sham!!!

+I have seen a bunch of chic ladies wearing these Rachel Comey jumpsuits — the cut is divine! So cute with sneakers or flats!

+Love these Chanel-inspired espadrilles for around $100.

+These Jimmy Choos are spectacular.

+Cutest scalloped cheese board for your next wine night with girlfriends!

+I know I’ve mentioned this touch and feel book a bunch, but both of my children have loved it. The letters are raised and the illustrations are really dynamic/dramatic. It makes a great gift because it looks adorable (and it’s substantive — like 2″ thick!) on a bookshelf. More of my children’s favorite books here and here.

+People lose their minds over these ESWBs (emotional support water bottles — if you follow Tinx, you know what I’m talking about).

+Adorable, well-priced mirror for a child’s room or powder room!

+Just ordered this exact dutch process cocoa powder for a baking project! It’s supposed to be le best.

+I had to buy this dress — it’s so me. I love this cut and length for easy everyday dresses in warmer weather.

+Sometimes Old Navy has really great, cheap denim — this is a super on-trend cut and wash.

+The prettiest beach toys for a little.

+I want basically all of the skirts in this post, but this hot pink style is really jumping out at me.

+Such a sweet swimsuit! Reminds me of Zimmermann.

+Another Target slam dunk!

+These alligator swim trunks (on sale for like $10) are adorable for a little one. More cute swim for children here.

+This perfect Easter tablecloth is only $17!

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12 thoughts on “Magpie Book Club: Home by Marilynne Robinson.

  1. Just another follow-up comment to my original to say that Robinson is an unabashed proponent of religion (which is rare among artists these days). While I haven’t read any of her nonfiction, Robinson grapples with faith in the modern world in a number of her works (as is evidenced by her fiction too). Those works might also be of interest to you, given your faith.

    1. Thank you, Sarah – I agree, her faith makes her unique in the contemporary canon. So much to consider here — I definitely need to take a closer look at her work.


  2. I have not read Home, but I absolutely loved Housekeeping and liked Gilead. I actually thought Housekeeping was more worthy of the Pulitzer than Gilead, but what do I know about the Pulitzer selection process? Nothing. 🙂

    Have you read Housekeeping? I find the setting more striking and the characters more emotionally stirring than the Iowan counterparts in Gilead.

    I might try this experiment where I go a year without white authors, and I am also considering committing to reading everything James Baldwin has ever published.

    Re: roles, says Baldwin:

    “The roles that we construct are constructed because we feel that they will help us survive, and also, of course, because they fulfill something in our personalities; and one does not, therefore cease playing a role simply because one has begun to understand it. All roles are dangerous. The world tends to trap you in the role you play and it is always extremely hard to maintain a watchful, mocking distance between oneself as one appears to be and oneself as one actually is.”

    1. Ooh, thank you for these upvotes on Robinson! I am loving all the Robinson admirers in the comments section — makes me want to do my homework and read up on her a bit more (and give her other books a chance). Thanks for sharing that, and for the quote by Baldwin! Powerhouse.


    2. Another Robinson diehard here and Housekeeping was the first book I read of hers in high school (I had a fantastic English teacher who really exposed me to some incredible literature not often found on a high school syllabus) and FELL IN LOVE. I absolutely love her characters (give me in depth character development over plot any day) and her writing is so rich, with an attention to detail and imagery we rarely see.

      Perhaps I am attached to Housekeeping since it was my first, but I also enjoyed that more than Home, perhaps even more than Gilead, as well. I think the female relationships in Housekeeping are more emotionally charged. For that reason, I also recommend reading Lila, which also features a female protagonist. I wept at the ending.

  3. This is the post that is driving me out of the lurking woodwork!

    My first attempt at reading Robinson was badly timed: I had a book of her essays (When I Was a Child I Read Books) on hand when I got my wisdom teeth removed…and I was NOT up for that kind of reflection while lying on the couch slightly delirious, ha! I more recently read Jack with a bookclub and found it a more moving depiction of a relationship between a man and woman than I’ve read in a long time. I have not read Home, but encountered Gilead at a well-timed moment many years ago. I found it slow, but building with that slowness to an immense crescendo; I remember feeling devastated at the end.

    I have been in an unprecedented reading rut the last few months for no clear reason, but I am delighted that I found a book that is pulling me out: Anna Karenina! Love Tolstoy’s surprising and carefully observed details that betray such humanity in his characters. I can’t stop reading! I also randomly picked up The Best of Stillmeadow by Gladys Taber when a friend was discarding it, and it has been charming–humorous and attentive writing about country living in New England with a multitude of dogs and children; just the light reflective thing for February reading.

    1. Hi Venia — welcome! Thank you for the insightful commentary and book suggestions! Your description of Taber’s book sounds ultra-appealing at the moment. I have actually never read any of the Russian greats outside of some gut courses in high school and am well overdue.

      Thank you for these beautiful notes — it is so true that books live within contexts, including the hyper-personal. I’ve definitely read books that have spoken to me at certain moments in my life and totally repulsed me or bored me in others. Thanks for the reminder about this fluidity!


  4. Forgive me for continuing to spam the comments section, but you’ve posted this right as I *finally* got myself back into a reading groove, with a novel that has really engrossed me. (I had several “DNF” books in a row, which was discouraging.) I am reading Min Jin Lee’s first novel, Free Food for Millionaires, after reading her recent interview in The New Yorker. I heartily recommend both. I think you’d be particularly interested in the interview and its focus on her writing and research process! The novel is so robust in its character development, and the setting of New York is also really well done — depicting the nuances, idiosyncrasies, and disparities of and among different communities within one city. Have you read either of Min Jin Lee’s works?

    As for Robinson, I *should* love her writing, as my literary studies were focused on domestic fiction and religion, but for some reason, I have never been able to get into her novels. Your questions about home and its relationship to identity align precisely with my interests, but I was always focused on the nineteenth century. I did read Housekeeping a while back but found it that it took a bit of dedication to finish (as you describe). I do think her pace can be a challenge. I really should at least try Gilead again!

    1. Susie, I LOVE your participation in the comments! Please keep the conversation coming. Makes me feel as though I have new text messages from friends whenever I get an alert 🙂

      I have not read Min Jin Lee – she has been on my list for a long while. I am intrigued by your review! Thank you.

      I think sometimes some authors just…don’t work for us. And that’s OK. I really could never get into Henry James and I know he is a talented portraitist (an area of writerly expertise that tends to appeal to me) and all that but just — not for me.


    2. <3 I think you are right about authors — and that's what makes it so magical when you find one who *does* work for you. It doesn't always make sense ("but I'm interested in XYZ, so why don't I like this novel?") and that's part of the joy in discovering our kindred writer spirits!

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