In the summer of 1956, Glory Boughton, at 38, the youngest of her parents' eight children, returns home to Gilead, Iowa, to care for her widowed, aged and failing father, the Rev. Robert Boughton, and also to recover, to whatever extent she can, from a disastrously disappointing romance.
By Marilynne Robinson
Farrar, Strauss & Giroux ($25)
Soon after she settles in, her father gets a letter from Jack, the youngest of Glory's four brothers. He's the family prodigal, missing in action for 20 years, since he got one of the local teenagers pregnant.
In his letter Jack says he'll be arriving in a couple of weeks. It turns out to be more like three, although it seems -- like much else in this novel -- longer in the telling. He arrives looking a little green around the gills, having just come off a bender.
But he soon white-knuckles his way into a simulacrum of sobriety and starts making himself useful, weeding the yard, gathering morels, fixing the old DeSoto in the barn.
Down the road lives the Rev. John Ames, the Rev. Boughton's best friend, who is about as old as Boughton but a lot more spry, having married a younger woman and sired a child (as readers of Robinson's Pulitzer-winning novel, "Gilead," will recall).
Jack was named after Ames, who is his godfather, but he has an understandably low opinion of his namesake. Jack hopes he can do something about that.
Jack also writes a lot of letters -- one every day -- to a woman named Della, but he doesn't get any in return, though eventually those he has sent start coming back with the words "Return to Sender" prominently displayed. When these letters are returned, Jack reverts to type.
There is much to admire about "Home." It is beautifully written, studded with vivid snapshots like this:
"The air had cooled. Insects had massed against the window screens, minute and various, craving the light from the tilted bulb of her father's bedside lamp, and the crickets were loud, and an evening wind was stirring the trees."
There are sharp observations:
"In college all of them had studied the putative effects of deracination, which were angst and anomie, those dull horrors of the modern world. They had been examined on the subject, had rehearsed bleak and portentous philosophies in term papers, and they had done it with the earnest suspension of doubt that afflicts the highly educated."
But there are problems. One is tempo: It is an unrelenting, unvarying largo.
Then there are the three central characters.
Ostensibly, Boughton is a great and good man laid low by the infirmities of age. We are told that, for him, "grace and forgiveness ... were the greatest goodness of God after creation itself." This belief was "intrinsic to his nature," and his family "loved and enjoyed his nature." And so:
"He would achieve some triumph of extenuation and emerge from his study, eyes blazing, having solved the riddle, ready to forgive heroically, to go that extra mile. True, the slights and foibles for which he had found extenuation necessary may have been minor or even questionable ... evidence of a certain irritability on his part."
The reverend is, in fact, a self-righteous and self-centered monster. His religion starts and ends with his own personal regard. His "love" of Jack is simply a desire to fill in the one blank in his painstakingly constructed self.
Once Jack arrives and Glory finds herself, in effect, with two invalids to care for, the good reverend often forgets she's there.
When Teddy, the oldest of the siblings, pays a visit and tells Glory that their father has commented on how well she and Jack get along, he adds, "He worried about that."
Now why would that be?
The other six Boughton kids apparently figured out that it was best to get with the reverend's program, escape into the real world as soon as possible, and reduce life with father to the mandatory -- and doubtless ghastly -- holiday visits.
So we are left with Glory and Jack, irrevocably crippled by their upbringing. Unfortunately, Robinson has not done nearly enough to make either of them interesting in their misery. Glory's endless second-, third- and fourth-guessing of her every least thought and action, to say nothing of her propensity for tears, grows exasperating.
And anyone who thinks Jack is interesting hasn't spent enough time in bars. The casual reader will quickly guess where things are headed, and no attentive reader will be surprised by the revelation in the final pages.
Toward the end of the novel, Glory wonders why anyone would stay in Gilead. It's a good question, because if the all the households are as claustrophobic as the Boughton manse and the other inhabitants are gripped by the kind of psychic paralysis that prevails there, then Gilead could well be the most boring place on Earth.
Frank Wilson is the former book-review editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer.