Tuesday, January 7, 2014


While I'm on the theme of "Contemporary Classics," I'd like to mention another worthy novel.  When I first read it, I did not fully appreciate the depth and insight of Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.  It is written from the perspective of a dying man as he shares his reflections on life, which he would like to leave as a legacy for his young son.  The narrator's voice is gentle and thoughtful, balancing his mistakes with his accomplishments and frequently pausing to reconsider his various life events.  The big difference for me between my two readings of this text was the death of my own father.  Before I experienced this loss, I breezed over the soft musings without grasping their depth.  But after going through my own grief, I passionately clung to his reflections, and tears frequently glistened in my eyes as I nodded in understanding.

The narrator of the book is John Ames, a reverend in small-town Iowa, who started a family very late in his life.  He shares some early memories of his father and grandfather, who were both pastors as well, and the early tragedies he faced as a young man.  In writing to his son, he expresses how his late marriage to the boy's mother was one of the greatest joys of his life, a relationship as unexpected and unique as it was satisfying and special.  He also expresses many of his theological beliefs and doubts, recalling his past sermons and the years he spent shepherding the small church.  Yet he does this without a touch of arrogance, instead emphasizing his flaws and jealousies in the spirit of transparent humanism.

Somewhat unintentionally, Ames shifts his journal to recounting the story of his best friend's son, Jack Boughton.  Ames has been involved in Jack's life since the day he was born, as he was named after the humble reverend.  However, the relationship has been colored by jealousies, concerns, shames, and disappointments.  Ames cares for Jack but doesn't know quite how to respond to him.  He worries over Jack's influence on his own young family, but he also feels guilty for holding such worry.  A bit reluctantly, Ames reveals Jack's "prodigal son" story piece by piece, filling it with his mixed emotions and personal struggles involved.  Four years after publishing Gilead, Robinson wrote a companion novel called Home, which tells the story of Jack Boughton from a different perspective.

The structure of this novel is not shaped around a fast-moving plot that demands your attention, which is probably why I missed so much of the inspiration of it in my first reading.  But I do not mean to suggest that it is boring, for as I approached the book with new eyes in my second reading, I consumed the pages within just two days of first picking it up.  The words nourished me, though they also reminded me of the sadness from which I had been moving away.  Most significantly, however, they reminded me of the meaningful change that the sadness had instilled in me over the last two years.

Thus, if you are looking for a page-turner, this might not be the best book for you.  But if you have been through any kind of sorrow in your life - whether it was a death or a personal struggle - I think that Robinson's words will rise from the pages and speak into your heart.  The narrator's unassuming tone allows for connection without self-importance, revealing just how universal so much of our human suffering can be.  And the most hopeful, inspiring thing we can draw from our suffering is an acknowledgement of the beauty within it.  All the imperfections and disappointments, the tragedies and mishaps, can contain a brilliant spark of beauty if we are only willing to look for it.

“Our dream of life will end as dreams do end, abruptly and completely, when the sun rises, when the light comes.  And we will think, All that fear and all that grief were about nothing.  But that cannot be true.  I can’t believe we will forget our sorrows altogether.  That would mean forgetting that we had lived, humanly speaking.  Sorrow seems to me to be a great part of the substance of human life.”

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Happy New Year!  While I was wandering through my favorite bookstore, the owner encouraged me to pick up a copy of The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery.  With a twinkle in his eye, he told me that he carefully observes people's reactions to this particular novel.  He believed that it would elicit a strong reaction from readers and that he could evaluate their literary taste entirely by their reaction to this book.  I was a little apprehensive as I began reading, but fortunately, I can truthfully say that I liked it.  And since it was written in 2008, I will now happily add it to my "Contemporary Classics" list.

The novel is about two kindred spirits - a middle aged concierge named Renee and a 12 year-old girl named Paloma.  Both women are extremely intelligent, passionate about literary culture, and disenchanted with wealthy elitists.  The chapters rotate between each woman's perspective, and readers discover countless parallels long before Renee and Paloma become friends.  They each hide their intelligence from the world, believing that no one would understand or accept their true nature.  Their unusual dynamic makes the story quite charming, but the wisdom embedded in the pages is what I believe makes it "classic."  Thus, the easiest way for me to encourage discussion about this book is to draw from some of its best quotes.

“We are all prisoners of our own destiny, must confront it with the knowledge that there is no way out and, in our epilogue, must be the person we have always been deep inside, regardless of any illusions we may have nurtured in our lifetime.”

When we first meet Renee, she has so fully accepted the social caste of her role as a hotel concierge that she discounts any possibility of change.  She has shut everyone out of her life, burying herself instead in the world of books.  Yet although books have extraordinary value, they cannot replace human connection.  Yes, there are certain things that we must accept in this world, and it would be futile to fight against them.  However, we should not allow our assumptions to suffocate the possibility of surprise.  Instead, that knowledge can allow us to welcome the changes in our lives without fear or restraint, knowing that it will only add to the person we have always been and will continue to be.  In my opinion, this is a big part of Barbery's message as Renee slowly opens up to the people who truly value her.

“We never look beyond our assumptions and, what’s worse, we have given up trying to meet others; we just meet ourselves. We don’t recognize each other because other people have become our permanent mirrors.”

I think that this is a valuable insight from Paloma, but I also believe that it is too sweeping of a statement. Although we may have this tendency, we can make a conscious effort to see other people as they really are.  Paloma shares Renee's despair, but she does not approach it with the same begrudging acceptance.  Instead, she dramatically decides that she will commit suicide unless she can find a good reason to stay alive.  Surrounded by shallowness, she craves intellectual depth and intimate connection, but fears that it is impossible to have both.

“Elsewhere the world may be blustering or sleeping, wars are fought, people live and die, some nations disintegrate, while others are born, soon to be swallowed up in turn – and in all this sound and fury, amidst eruptions and undertows, while the world goes its merry way, bursts into flames, tears itself apart and is reborn: human life continues to throb. So let us drink a cup of tea.”

I love this concept; it's simple and elegant.  Yes, the world is sometimes terrible and sometimes wonderful.  In my personal experience, I find that it is vastly out of my control, and I just have to let go and accept that.  Yet rather than viewing this as a frightening concept, I like the way it is presented here, with a peaceful acceptance and specific comfort.  Let us band together with our friends in the ups and downs of life, and let us drink a cup of tea (or coffee!) as we deal with them.

Finally, I want to be careful not to spoil the ending, but I just want to say that I found it to be profoundly beautiful.  It did not go as I had expected, but the final musings are the ones that most resonated with me and wrapped me with a deep connection to the story itself.  So I will now leave those words with you:

“Maybe that’s what life is about: there’s a lot of despair, but also the odd moment of beauty, where time is no longer the same. It’s as if those strains of music created a sort of interlude in time, something suspended, an elsewhere that had come to us, an always within never.”