Read: for December Book Club and based on the long-time recommendation of my friend Brittney (Ballantine Books, 408 pages, originally published September 1997)
Rating: 10 out of 10 (finished 12/1/10)
Synopsis: In 2019, humanity finally finds proof of extraterrestrial life when a listening post in Puerto Rico picks up exquisite singing from a planet which will come to be known as Rakhat. While United Nations diplomats endlessly debate a possible first contact mission, the Society of Jesus quietly organizes an eight-person scientific expedition of its own. What the Jesuits find is a world so beyond comprehension that it will lead them to question the meaning of being “human.” When the lone survivor of the expedition, Emilio Sandoz, returns to Earth in 2059, he will try to explain what went wrong.
Overall Impression: Based on the synopsis of this book, most people wouldn’t pick it up. Space travel? Aliens? Jesuit priests? It’s one of those books that has to be recommended by someone you trust half a dozen times (or more) before you’ll read it.
And then you do and you’re so very thankful you did.
This was, hands down, one of the best novels I’ve read in a long time. A warning — it will absolutely break your heart into a thousand pieces. I haven’t wept through a book like I did with The Sparrow in a long time. That being said, it is also hilarious, heart-warming, scary, evocative, and breathtaking. Most of all, it is a beautiful commentary on faith. It is one of the most raw, elegant looks at personal faith that I’ve ever read.
“The Jewish sages also tell us that God dances when His children defeat Him in argument, when they stand on their feet and use their minds. So questions like Anne’s [about why bad things happen] are worth asking. To ask them is a very fine kind of human behavior. If we keep demanding that God yield up His answers, perhaps some day we will understand them. And then we will be something more than clever apes, and we shall dance with God.”
“…[That] is my dilemma. Because if I was led by God to love God, step by step, as it seemed, if I accept that the beauty and the rapture were real and true, the rest of it was God’s will too, and that gentlemen is cause for bitterness. But if I am simply a deluded ape who took a lot of old folktales far too seriously, then I brought all this on myself and my companions and the whole business becomes farcical, doesn’t it. The problem with atheism, I find, under these circumstances…is that I have no one to despise but myself. If, however, I choose to believe that God is vicious, then at least I have the solace of hating God.”
Each of the characters struggles with the nature of God in a different way, and Russell weaves the stories of these people and their journey (both physical journey and spiritual journey) into this stunning tale. She uses a dual story line as the structure for her book. The first is of this rag-tag bunch of characters learning of music on a distant planet and seeking to find the singers of the songs. The second follows Emilo Sanchez, who returns from the mission alone, an absolutely shattered man. But this isn’t a book about plot. It’s about the characters — beautiful, real, raw, honest, broken, loving people. I loved these characters about as much as I’ve loved any characters in literature.
Ack, I’m crying just thinking about them. It makes me ache.
Seriously, despite the unconventional premise, you should read this book. I have yet to run across anyone who didn’t love it (my book club gives it the highest recommendation possible).
“Rain falls on everyone, lightning strikes some. What cannot be changed is best forgotten. God made the world, and He saw that it was good. Not fair. Not happy. Not perfect. Good.”
Pros: Russell’s writing is stunning. Her characters are perfection. Her ruminations on faith will have you thinking about God more deeply.
Cons: A few loose ends. Who cares?
Other blogger reviews:
My Friend Amy: “I started reading and didn’t want to put it down, when I had to set it down to go to church or eat, I was dying to get back to it. It’s the kind of book that’s like an itch that must be scratched, I absolutely had to be reading it.”
books i done read: “Yes, Woeful Downer, but also MYSTERIES AND OBSTACLES AND WITTY BANTER AND ROMANCE AND CONFLICT AND ALIENS!!!”
The Book Lady’s Blog: “…I think the fact that Russell can give so many details along the way and still make the ending so powerful is a testament to the quality of her writing and her skill as an author.”
Steve’s Place: “Too often in science-fiction religion has no place – depicted too much with simple-minded zealotry, but I thought these two books covered that ground thoughtfully and sympathetically (without being preachy at all).”
Other books I’ve read by Mary Doria Russell: none