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What if the prodigal son fell in love? Not the wanton, worldly loves we imagine for him, but the soul-stretching love of seeing God in another person? What if his greatest sin was not “wild living” but illegally forging a fragile relationship across racial boundaries? Who would welcome this son home?

Marilynne Robinson tells this knotty parable in Jack, her latest novel and the fourth book in her Gilead series. The title character, Jack Boughton, is the son of an aging Presbyterian minister, but his early adulthood in St. Louis has been anything but preacherly. He drinks too much, works too little, and dreads the idea of presenting his disreputable self to his father.

But Jack is not without a moral compass. He is obsessed with “harmlessness,” with protecting others from his self-destructive tendencies. He avoids “fragile” things at all costs. And he’s wise enough to realize the implications of this strategy: to pray “keep me harmless” is to pray “keep me alone.”

That prayer isn’t answered. Instead, fate (or providence) introduces him to Della Miles, the daughter of a prominent Black clergyman. Jack and Della fall into a socially and legally taboo romance that threatens Della’s respectability, career, and family relationships.

The novel begins with a 60-page scene of Jack and Della talking awkwardly but intimately in a graveyard. They argue about theology, about poetry, about life after the apocalypse, all while navigating the cringes and missteps of early courtship. The couple’s verbal duels are the highlight of the book, their personal issues barely concealed by wit and courtesy.

This careful dance with Della eventually leads Jack to a moral crisis: he can neither marry her nor leave her without causing harm. His usual course of action, sneaking out unnoticed, isn’t an option. He is “caught in the snares of loyalties he could only disappoint.” The book’s key question is when to cut yourself loose from that snare and when to live imperfectly inside it.

This is the first of Robinson’s books to deal extensively with the issue of race, and while it’s not an explicitly political novel, the plot plays out against the everyday tragedies of segregation in mid-20th-century America. Most dramatically, several of St. Louis’s Black neighborhoods are set to be seized by the government through eminent domain. One of the reasons Jack’s “harmlessness” proves impossible with Della is that the state is set on doing harm to her and her community.

Like Robinson’s previous novels, Jack is full of theological puzzles, stunning sentences, and judicious Shakespeare references. But there’s something new here too: a stumbling quality to the prose that forces the reader to feel Jack’s constant self-consciousness:

“I will ruin this, he thought. … If he touched her face now, ever so lightly, things would be different afterward. That’s how the world is, touch anything, change everything. Caution is needed. Which meant that question was already in his mind—what would be left if the fragile were tested, pushed nearer the edge of the shelf, if that tension were sprung and the fragile thing, the essence of it, lost.”

Robinson’s 2005 novel Gilead has long been one of my favorites. It insists that imperfect relationships can be good, that redemption can rise out of tragedy without reversing it.

But Jack makes a scarier case, especially for those of us who, like Jack, want to be harmless: Sometimes you have to break something to unleash a blessing. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

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