Jack by Marilynne Robinson: A review


I had not read any of the books in Marilynn Robinson's acclaimed Gilead series prior to this one. In fact, I had never read anything by her. So I have no way of knowing if this is typical of her writing, but this novel just jumps right in, without any explanation or introduction, to a scene of a man and a woman walking on a street and having a philosophical/theological discussion. We don't know who these people are, where they are, or what time period they are living in. Moreover, once this first section finishes up, the narrative moves on to another scene of these same two unknown characters in a cemetery at night. It develops that the man, who is apparently a vagrant, had gone there to sleep, whereas the woman, for whatever reason, was visiting the cemetery when the guard locked the gate for the night and she was unable to get out. They meet up and they spend the night together wandering the cemetery and once again having their esoteric philosophical/theological discussion. Even after this quite long section we still don't know who they are. At this point, frankly, I was strongly tempted to throw the book across the room and move on to something else. I do not enjoy reading blind, not knowing who or what I am reading about. But, true to my code of finishing what I have started, I kept reading, and eventually, the narrative did circle back and reveal a bit about the identity of these philosophers.   

The man is John Ames Boughton (Jack) and he is actually from Gilead, Iowa. He is the prodigal son of Gilead's Presbyterian minister. He has been in trouble of one kind or another since his teen years. He is a liar and a thief and has spent some time in prison, ironically for a theft that he did not commit. He has cut off any connection with his loving family, but his brother, Teddy, learned where he was and he sends him money occasionally. It's what helps Jack keep body and soul together. He is now in St. Louis and that's where all of the philosophical talks have taken place. Jack is White.

The woman is Della Miles. Her father also is a minister in Memphis where she is from. In fact, he is a bishop of the A.M.E church there. Della is Black. She is a teacher at a high school. Her family is extremely proud of that fact. Teaching is an honorable and honored profession in her community. She is close with her family and members of the family sometimes come to visit (and check on) her.

The inevitable happens. These two people with so much in common in their backgrounds and with a mutual love of philosophical questions and poetry fall in love. They are occasionally able to spend time together at Jack's bare apartment or at Della's comfortable one when her roommate is out - the roommate who seriously disapproves of this relationship. We are never explicitly told what the time frame is but we can deduce that it is sometime after World War II and before the Supreme Court decision in the Loving vs. Virginia case in 1967 because miscegenation laws are still in force and are still enforced. Jack lives in terror that they will be arrested and tried, especially that Della will be arrested and tried because the law would deal most harshly with her. 

Della's roommate lets her family know about her new relationship and members of the family come to visit her and attempt to dissuade her from continuing to meet Jack. First, her Aunt Delia and then her sister, Julia, come to town to talk her round and they also meet Jack and emphasize to him the danger that he is putting Della in, but, of course, he already knows that. None of their persuasion works; not that Jack won't try to stay away from her but that Della will not allow it. She continues to seek him out. The two eventually "marry," not in the eyes of the law, of course, but they consider themselves married (at least Della does) in the eyes of God.

Once I got past my annoyance with the beginning of the book, I found quite a lot to like about it. The writing really is beautiful. Marilynne Robinson seems to be of a philosophical bent herself and I gather she has written several essays that explore such subjects as the relationship between science and religion. So I guess all those philosophical discussions that her characters had were her way of addressing these interests in fiction. The story that she tells is fraught because of the times in which these people lived when interracial relationships were not just frowned upon but were actually illegal. And yet the love that these two people share in some ways insulates them from the world and certainly, in Jack's case it redeems him and makes him a better person. 

I read somewhere that this will be the last in the Gilead series, which, if true, seems a shame since the ending of this story leaves us hanging. It would be nice to know how the love story turns out.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

  
 

Comments

  1. I really can't deal with books that leave me hanging. I just want to know how it ends and I just want to close the book, as to say :)

    I do love psychological thrillers with endings that leave some questions, but I do need an ending!

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    1. Perhaps I have misled you with my comment about the ending. There is, in fact, a definite ending but it is one that opens up all kinds of possibilities and would tend to make one think that there will be a sequel to further explore those possibilities and that may be the writer's intent. Who knows? Probably her editor.

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  2. I've only read Gilead and that was over 10 years ago. I do think series books need to have some reference to what has transpired early on or at least who the characters are. Although I think I did like Gilead, I was never moved to read any other books probably because of the religious undertone.

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    1. It's possible that people who have read the other books in the series would have immediately realized who at least the male character was but I didn't have that advantage. Religion definitely plays a part in this particular episode of the the Gilead story, as it possibly does in all of them. I wouldn't know. But exploring religious thought does appear to be a major interest of this writer.

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  3. I hope it's not the end! That wouldn't be a good ending at all!

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  4. The only novel I have read by this author is Housekeeping, a very dark and disturbing story but I loved it. I suppose it is about time to read more. I get a bit squeamish about books where religion is part of the plot and I thought the Gilead books were of that type, so I skipped them. But I CAN change.

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    1. I don't know whether religion plays a part in the other books, although I gather from some of the comments I've received that it does. It's a part of this book primarily because both characters are children of ministers and are significantly influenced by that experience. It has led them to their philosophies of life which they delight in discussing at length.

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  5. I admit I have had trouble getting into the Gilead books (which are so highly praised) ... I tried one & couldn't get through the beginning ... uh-oh. But I did like her book Housekeeping which seems so different than the Gilead books. Not sure if I will go back & try harder with them. I know many have loved them all.

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    1. Indeed. They have won literary awards, but while I enjoyed this one well enough once the story finally got going, I'm not sure I will read any more of them.

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  6. I feel that an ending is a must for me as well. I feel so restless when I know that I've got to find the next step in the saga. Maybe not for me.

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    1. There is a an ending here but it's just not definitive and, as I said, it sort of leaves you hanging.

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  7. I have Jack here, and, though I eagerly awaited its arrival, I haven't yet read it. I am a huge fan of Marilynne Robinson, and I've read everything she has written (well, except Jack). Religion is one of the most important themes in her novels, especially ideas of forgiveness and redemption. Housekeeping is probably my least favorite of her books, and in it religion plays a smaller role than in other books, I think. I like Gilead best. It is one of the few books I have read over and other.

    I think I will pull Jack off the shelf for my next fiction read.

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    1. Since you have read and enjoyed the others in the series, I feel sure you will enjoy this one, too. And you will probably not be as lost as I was up front!

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  8. This book sounds like an amazing read... The start of the book being a blind read to begin with would have annoyed me too and I do not like not books that leaving you hanging either. But I am still curious about this book.

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    1. It was really well written. I had no problem with it other than the beginning.

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