Ruth and Lucille experience a rather severe lack of parenting, losing first their father, who abandons them, then their mother, who after leaving them on their grandmother’s porch proceeds to drive off a cliff (no spoiler-this is on the back of the book). Unfortunately for them, their situation doesn’t greatly improve. Despite her love of them, the grandmother’s advanced age shortens her time in their lives and soon leaves them in the care of two aged great-aunts, who, feeling out of their league, and not the least interested in raising two young girls, track down, post-haste, the girls’ transient-living (for that read a nice way to say “hobo”) aunt and prevail upon her to return to her hometown and do her duty by her sister’s daughters. Within a day of the aunt, Sylvie’s, return, the elderly aunts decamp, leaving the young girls abandoned to her less than exemplary, if willing, care.
Through beautiful prose Marilynne Robinson paints a picture of two sisters who come to see in their aunt a picture of who their mother might have been, and some of the demons that might have haunted her. It is clear that Sylvie is mentally unstable, and the narrator of the tale, Ruthie, seems to feel and show some leanings in that direction as well. As the story progresses, Lucille craves normalcy and strikes out on her own to find it, but Ruth loyally cleaves to family and the memories that surface for her of her own mother when she is with Sylvie.
There are so many gorgeous quotes in this book, but here are a couple examples:
“To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow. For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know anything so utterly as when we lack it?”
“There is so little to remember of anyone-an anecdote, a conversation at table. But every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh, and that the wanderers will find a way home, and the perished, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming, habitual fondness, not having meant to keep us waiting long.”
This is a lovely work, laden with pathos; you watch these two young lives slowly spiral downward, and you ache for them. I highly recommend reading it in one undisturbed sitting (it is a fairly short novel-a little over 200 pages), allowing the complete flow of the narrative to spin.