Please read the spoiler alert before reading this review.
Gilead is written as a letter from an old man, John Ames, a Reverend in a country church, to his young son. The Reverend married a younger woman late in life, and is now afraid he will die before his son matures, so he writes a book-length letter to his son, in a conversational style, talking about current happenings and past events in the history of his family and the town he lives in; his thoughts on life, God, religion, spiritual matters, other people, historical events, and the meaning of things; and about his love for the boy and his mother. The book jumps back and forth between past and present, and can feel a little disjointed at times. This made it seem authentic, in a sense - random stories and thoughts, just as you would write if you were writing a long series of letters, rather than editing a book - but can make it hard to follow if you're not paying close attention.
The book is well-written in the sense that the author describes things with such detail you can really see them there in front of you (and yet the details seem to flow naturally and are beautifully evocative, rather than mind-numbingly thorough). I was entranced by some of the spiritual discussions and by the Reverend's firm insistence that life itself - our human existence on Earth - is a thing of beauty to be treasured despite any difficulties or earthly "ugliness," rather than as a struggle to be endured until we can rush to "heaven" or some other more beautiful / spiritual place after death. This viewpoint certainly differs from that of some other religious leaders and was refreshing in that sense.
I loved the author's beautifully stated observations about American life and religion, human nature, and the beauty of the world. The Reverend's musings and stories are interesting, amusing, and thought-provoking, and the "letter" itself contains enough interesting events and describes interesting persons well enough that you actually get a sense of their character....
maybe it's my fault because when I started out, I tried to read this book an hour at a time while taking my kids to piano class or gymnastics or whatever, sitting and waiting... and with rather constant interruptions, so it was slow going (probably about 15 minutes of actual reading time for each hour I sat with the book). And so I thought the "letter" was ok, but I kept wondering why Reverend Ames seemed to so dislike and distrust his namesake / godson, who is his best friend's son? I kept thinking I missed something along the way, and so I kept turning back the pages and skimming prior chapters, trying to find what I had missed. This led to a very disjointed reading of the book.
Finally, I had to set it aside. I just felt too confused and frustrated by it.
I picked it up again two months later, when I had a chunk of free time, and started from the beginning, determined this time not to miss the critical piece of information about why the Reverend so disliked his godson, and promising myself that if I wasn't enjoying the book this time, I'd just give it up and start a different one.
This time, I read it in a few hours over the course of two relatively distraction-free days and actually liked it. (This seems to be a trend for me with these Pulitzer winners - I don't quite "get it" the first time through - it takes a second reading for me to pick up on the themes and facts that make the book interesting and/or "prize-worthy." Apparently my "English Lit" skills are a little rusty.)
As it turns out, we don't learn why the Reverend so dislikes his godson until very near the end of the book. I wasn't as frustrated this time, though, since I knew I hadn't missed anything, it just wasn't there yet.
I won't spoil the fun stuff by talking about the amusing stories in the book. I will say I found the end touching, and not in a fairy-tale happy ending sort of way (and the following may spoil the end for those of you who haven't read it).
The book explored the biblical and spiritual themes of the prodigal son, God's love despite human sins, redemption, reconciliation, forgiveness, pride, and spiritual growth. The book also deals, at a more mundane / earthly level, with stories of abolitionists and racial tension, recognizing that many religious leaders were also leaders in the abolitionist movement and that the abolitionists were, by necessity, a rather unlawful bunch. For example, the Reverend's grandfather, also a Reverend and an abolitionist, is painted as a very fallible and strong-willed character, a very religious man but with quirks and sins and human fallibility. And the book explores the sometimes strained relationship between fathers and sons - including Reverend Ames's relationship with his father, and his father's relationship with his father (the Reverend's abolitionist grandfather).
These themes are brought together in the character of the young John Ames. We eventually learn that he fathered a child when he was young and left town in shame, after refusing to marry the young mother or to support the child. His father, Reverend Ames's best friend (and a Reverend in a church of a different denomination), loves his son unconditionally in spite of this major human failing, and yearns for his son's return. Reverend Ames, the younger Ames's Godfather, does not understand this unconditional love, despite his attempts to apply his biblical understanding of the story of the prodigal son. He tries to understand, but he just doesn't, which is obvious because he so dislikes the younger John Ames and mistrusts him so thoroughly when he returns to visit his father.
Near the end of the book, the younger John Ames tells the old Reverend Ames that he has a son about the same age as the Reverend's son, and tells him about his desire and efforts to marry the mother of his son whom he loves but has been unable to marry (because in the 1950's interracial marriage was not allowed), and Reverend Ames comes to see the beauty, strength, human frailty, honor, and worthiness of his Godson, and comes to accept him despite his past sins and failures. There is a scene in which Reverend Ames formally blesses his Godson before his Godson leaves (probably never to return), and you can almost feel the years of misunderstanding and mistrust and doubts and frustration falling away, replaced by great love and compassion and understanding.
Meanwhile, the young John Ames's own father, who has always loved him despite his sins (the "prodigal son" theme), never learns of the redeeming qualities the senior Ames discovers near the end of the book. There is a suggestion that, if he knew of his son's struggle to marry the woman he loves despite the racial issues and of his mixed-race grandson, he might in fact be less accepting or loving than he has been - an interesting contrast with the Godfather / Godson relationship, and an interesting comment on the concept of "unconditional love" being doled out disproportionately to those who don't "deserve" it.
I was somewhat disappointed that the story of how the Reverend came to marry his much-younger, ethnic wife was not explored or explained further. I would have liked to have seen the racial themes explored more thoroughly, and also would have liked more insight into these characters. Why was the wife so drawn to the Reverend? Why was the Reverend so drawn to her? (We get a little information about this second question, but not much at all about why she insisted that he marry her). And although the Reverend muses some about his son and tosses in a couple of stories about the child, we never get much of a sense of the kid's personality. Perhaps exploring these areas in more detail would have made the book "too long." But I think it would have made the book more interesting and thus would have been worthwhile. As it is, I felt the description of the relationship between the Reverend and his wife was rather "flat," and I kept thinking the kid would have loved to read more about how his father and mother met and fell in love, instead of reading strange stories of abolitionists and this younger "John Ames" that he may never see again.
All in all, this was not my favorite book ever, although I liked it. I won't be telling all my friends they should rush out and read it. But I won't tell them not to, either. If you have the time to read it over the course of a couple of days so you can keep the events and people straight in your head and not feel as if you're missing something, and if you enjoy rather random musings about God, religion, and life; and character studies; and life-vignettes, then by all means, go for it. If you're looking for an action-adventure story or a romance or even a more thoroughly drawn historical fiction type novel, move along down the bookstore aisles and find something else.
If any of you have read it, I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.