Maybe it was two decades of anticipation, since Marilynne Robinson's last novel was published in 1980. Or maybe it's the grace and self-deprecating wisdom of its narrator, 77-year-old John Ames. Or perhaps it's the penetrating way Robinson writes about faith and forgiveness in a voice that's never pious or preaching.
Whatever the reason, "Gilead" has inspired odes of joy from even the most jaded critics.
"Now that is a spectacular book," says Ron Charles, a senior editor for the Washington Post's Book World section.
Charles says Robinson's story is all the more extraordinary because, although she's writing about intricate complex themes, she didn't indulge in the literary pyrotechnics you'll find in other fiction. It's a whisper of a book about the tribulations of faith, and it has a powerful punch.
"It's not the kind of quiet that doesn't know the real agony of what it means to be mortal, and to look forward to eternity," says Charles.
Eternity is on Rev. John Ames' mind as he begins a letter to his young son that he knows will be read years after his death.
"If you're a grown man when you read this -- it is my intention for this letter that you will read it then -- I'll have been gone a long time. I'll know most of what there is to know about being dead, but I'll probably keep it to myself. That seems to be the way of things," Rev. Ames writes.
We learn a lot about the way of things in Gilead, Iowa, the town Rev. Ames has lived in most of his life, and the place where he inherited the pulpit of a church from his father.
Ames tells the tale of his militant grandfather who rode with abolitionist John Brown, and convened his congregation with the shot from a pistol. He reveals the grief of losing his wife and daughter when he was still a young pastor, and spending much of his middle age alone.
It's not the kind of quiet that doesn't know the real agony of what it means to be mortal, and to look forward to eternity.Book critic Ron Charles
Ames writes to his son, "There's a lot under the surface of life, everyone knows that. A lot of malice and dread and guilt and so much loneliness, where you wouldn't expect to find it, either."
Nor might you expect Robinson's novel to include an intriguing mystery. But gradually, as the letter unfolds, we meet the ne'er-do-well but much beloved son of his closest friend, who has returned from his travels to insinuate himself ever further into the lives of Ames' young wife and their child.
Olivia Boler, who reviewed "Gilead" for the San Francisco Chronicle, says the suspense and the themes, and the wonderful narrative tone, created a "deeply reflective yet accessible novel."
"It's more than just a rumination. It's a great story as well, and a great American story," says Boler.
An American story, says the Washington Post's Ron Charles, that does what so few writers can do today -- step lightly but inspiringly around faith, what he says is the "last taboo" in American fiction.
"When you think about what people are willing to describe about their sex lives or their politics, they would never talk about their relationship with God. That's just too private these days," says Charles.
Olivia Boler confessed that she hopes Marilynne Robinson is already at work on the story of what becomes of John Ames' son.
"I try to be respectful when a writer decides to end it there, and I do like stories that are left to the interpretation of the reader. But it's always fun to wonder," says Boler.
Robinson isn't telling. The book closes with John Ames imagining his grown son traveling far from Gilead.
He writes: "I'll pray that you grow up a brave man in a brave country. I will pray that you find a way to be useful. I'll pray, and then I'll sleep."