I have some complicated feelings about Gilead. I came in with no expectations or knowledge of it beforehand, besides the fact that it won the Pulitzer Prize, and it is a book that ended up surprising me. Gilead is a deeply philosophical book. This book attempts to tackle some heavy subject matter; family bonds, spirituality and atunement with god, and reconciling a desire to do the right thing with a dark past being among them. There's a lot to unpack there, but ultimately I think the book spreads itself a bit thin and misses the mark on most of the subjects it brings up. It's not a terribly long book, and with how many themes it has packed in it is bound to run out of words to touch on everything, which is exactly what happens.
However, there is still a lot to like about this book. The book is told from the perspective of John Ames, a dying pastor reflecting on his life and connection to god, and the narrative format is in the form of a series of letter to his seven-year-old son. Ames is a sympathetic and compassionate narrator as he explores the many relationships he has had over his life. His relationship with Jack Boughton, the son of Ames' best friend, plays a centrol role in his reflection. Ames is in constantly conflict over how he is supposed to feel about Boughton. On one hand, Ames views the young man as his own son. However, Boughton has commited some cowardly and heinous actions in his past. Can a man of god love someone who has done such terrible things in their past? Is there such a thing as unconditional love, or does all love have an upperbound of tolerance where it can be broken?
These are good questions to ask, and the book does attempt to answer them. However, it only ever gets skin deep. The narrative seems to get lost at some parts when John Ames begins to ponder god and the nature of religion, and "What is god, and how are we supposed to talk to god?" is a bit too big for this book. There is some light touching upon this subject, but it feels a little dropped into the narrative at strange times. It does make sense if you think about it from the perspective the book is narrated from, but these little detours of philosophy bog the flow down and didn't add much for me in the long run.
At the end of the day, Gilead was a pretty good book. It's hamstrung by its own ambition; there is just a bit too much being touched upon in too few pages. A more focused narrative would have been perfect, because a good portion of this book was enjoyable to read and the story does jump out of the pages.