Monday, April 04, 2005


I was a shy college student who'd published a short story or two, and she was the author of a legendary first novel when her husband invited me to dinner. As an editor at The Massachusetts Review, Fred Robinson had discovered one of my stories in the slush pile and published it. The gracious, traditional home the Robinsons shared with their two sons was less than a mile from the housing project where I lived with my own two boys, the result of a precipitous marriage at eighteen. Apparently, Fred was curious about the writer who lived in the projects and always had her shades closed when he passed. One day, he stopped by the restaurant where I worked as a waitress and invited me to dinner.

By then, I had read Housekeeping three times, and I loved it so much that I'd committed several passages to memory. Before the night of the dinner, I agonized over how to express my admiration. What could I possibly say that the feted author hadn't heard a million times--and undoubtedly with more eloquence? What I wanted to tell her most was that at certain points in the novel I identified so strongly and painfully with the outsiders she'd created that I had to close the book and put it aside. At other times, I almost wept as Marilynne Robinson's characters walked off the page and into my apartment and made themselves at home amid the tumult of my life.

Then there was the question of what to bring. Fred had called to say they were making a curry, if that was all right with me. All right with me? Ravioli from the can would have been a treat in their company. I purchased a dense loaf of bread at an exhorbitant price from a chi chi bakery in town. However, by the time I got it home, I decided it wasn't an appropriate accompaniment to curry, and served it to my kids with peanut butter instead. Wine was a better idea, but as I stood before the dizzying selection in the liquor store, the only brands I recognized were the kind I'd drunk furtively in high school--cheap apple and strawberry flavored concoctions with twist off caps, more like soda with a kick than wine. Feeling more like one of Robinson's misfit characters than ever, I fled the liquor store empty handed.

In the end, that was how I presented myself at the Robinson home: empty handed and too tongue tied to say a word about the novel that haunted me. Ironically, the celebrated author was the one who complimented me on my writing. And yet from the moment, Marilynne came down the stairs with her long hair twisted into a coil over one shoulder, she was a gracious hostess. Who knows? Perhaps she, too, recognized a little bit of her own Sylvie in my awkwardness and was determined to make me feel at home.

The curry (which I had never had before) was splendid, and for dessert, Marilynne served the most delicious blueberry pie I've ever tasted (a one crust version with uncooked blueberries and freshly whipped cream). Learning to make a good pie crust was part of her western heritage, she explained, and promised to give me her recipe.

But far more memorable than the food was the rousing conversation we shared before, during, and after the meal. The Robinsons were an exuberant couple whose warmth and wide ranging enthusiasms temporarily dispelled the shyness that was the curse of my younger years. One subject we discussed that evening was Marilynne's work in progress, a novel about a woman living in France where the Robinsons had recently spent a year.

Shortly thereafter, I moved away, and when I tried to contact Fred at the Review, I learned that their world had been through a similar upheaval, culminating in divorce and relocation. However, for many years, like much of the literary world, I watched for a sign of the intriguing novel Marilynne had described that evening over dinner. When it never appeared, I assumed it fell victim to the inevitable pressures and inflated expectations that follow such a highly praised debut. If so, Marilynne was right to withhold it. Right to make us wait these long decades for Gilead, a novel that is once again so glowingly reviewed that it seems there is nothing for the solitary reader to add.

But this time I will add it anyway. Unlike Housekeeping, which I devoured, Gilead is a novel to be read slowly. I allowed myself only three or four pages a night. More than that and I felt as dizzy as I was standing before a selection of unfamiliar wines those many years ago. It is a novel of the senses, of the heart and mind, but most of all it is a novel of that wan and underfed guest: the soul.


Shannon Hopkins said...

Wow. I loved Housekeeping. A friend of mine gave it to me for my birthday years ago. And Gilead too is beautiful, in a different way. I love your description of the dinner, and of your sense of awkward helplessness as you stood before the wines. I felt like you'd dropped into my head and coaxed out the way I feel at fancy dinners. Beautiful.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.