Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Picador. 247 pp. $16.00

This novel has an almost irresistible premise for me: an older father writing to his son about the past life that he’ll never have a chance to discuss with him, since he expects to have died by the time then son gets interested. My own father died when I was 16, and there are any number of things that I regret never having discussed with him. For many of those early years I was too young to wonder about things, and toward the end of his life I was alienated and adolescent and kind of grouchy. As a psychiatrist once said, everybody loses his father when he’s sixteen, but my father actually died. So I always wished my father had done what Congregationalist minister John Ames does here, write to his son about the things he wants him to know.

But this was the first novel in which I really felt I understood all the fuss about Marilynne Robinson. Housekeeping I didn’t get it all for some reason, and I was reading Lila out of context, which was unfair. But this book is beautifully written, and deeply heartfelt: a man is trying to bare his soul to the son he will never really know. There were places where I thought John Ames—our narrator—sounded a little bit like a fussy woman; I had the feeling the voice really belonged to Marilynne Robinson. Elsewhere I found Ames more convincing.

There’s something terribly strange about the whole story. This older rather stodgy minister gets involved with a much younger woman who knows virtually nothing about culture or religion, including the faith he’s devoted his life to. The congregation no doubt disapproves. But everyone goes along with the situation, and tries to regard this untutored woman as the pastor’s wife.

Ames is great friends with a Presbyterian minister named Jack Boughton, such good friends that the man named his own son John Ames Boughton. That son has proved to be a trial to both men, the bad minister’s kid that so many of us met when we were young. It’s as if the man of the cloth has an enormous shadow which he’s trying to repress, and the son does his best to completely act it out. He has a kind of genius for doing the thing that his father, and his namesake, find maddening; he is the one person in the novel for whom Ames has thoughts that are less than charitable. It’s mildly funny to read about a minister trying to love someone who just isn’t lovable. It’s also poignant.

To say more would be to deliver a number of spoilers. But I’m now in the Marilynne Robinson camp. I’m looking forward to Home, and may even reread Lila. The woman has quite a cast of characters here. They’re a little too worried about theology, instead of just cutting loose and living their lives in a deep and meaningful way. But they’re in there pitching.