Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

This month for Barrie Summy's Book Review Club I'm discussing The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. My sister gave this novel to my husband a few years ago, insisting that he had to read it. He didn't. Eventually, I did. Now he has, too, and my book club was supposed to discuss it tonight. We didn't. In fact, we didn't even meet because of the thick sheet of ice dusted with new-fallen snow blanketing our corner of the Midwest.

So rather than discussing The Sparrow with friends over food and wine at my house (visual enjoyment only, in my case with the wine) instead I'm sitting in my pajamas - which I've been in for 24 hours straight - on my couch in my warm, clean house, writing about the book.

Some of the women in my book club don't read a lot of science fiction, so I tried to sell them on the idea of this book. "I'd like to suggest something speculative, if you're up for a bit of a journey. The genre for this one I'd call literary sci fi, though it's fairly near future and not too far out there." If we amend "literary sci fi" to "literary Jesuit sci fi," does that pique your interest?

The idea is this: when new lands and people are discovered, one of the first groups to get there, every time, have been the Jesuits. Why should space be any different?

I also linked to a reading group guide and this review:
"In clean, effortless prose and with captivating flashes of wit, Russell creates memorable characters who navigate a world of exciting ideas and disturbing moral issues without ever losing their humanity or humor. Both heartbreaking and triumphant, and rich in literary pleasures great and small, The Sparrow is a powerful and haunting book. It is a magical novel, as literate as The Name of the Rose, as farsighted as The Handmaid's Tale and as readable as The Thorn Birds."
to prove that the book is absolutely appropriate for a serious book club read.

Not that we only take on serious reads. After all, this group has read Twilight and Just Do It: How One Couple Turned Off the TV and Turned On Their Sex Lives for 101 Days (No Excuses!). But mostly we do read upmarket fiction, the kinds of new novels that come with discussion questions printed on the last pages and require long waits at the library.

Back to The Sparrow. It's a smart book, meaning that it's a book about smart people who don't try to pretend not to be smart. I like that. The characters aren't pretentious, they're just interested in learning stuff. And it's a book that pulls off that amazing storytelling trick of describing something horrific and then making it understandable and a lot harder to judge than you'd assume.

I'm generally not a fan of books that jump around in time, but this book is told in alternating chapters from the "present" (near future) and the future (slightly further near future). This structure works well for the novel because both time lines proceed chronologically and eventually meet. Needing to know how we could possibly get there from here drives the story.

I don't want to give too much away, especially since I went on to read the sequel (Children of God) which picks up where The Sparrow leaves off and almost feels like Part II of the same book. So I will close with this: The characters from Russell's novel felt real to me, and I wish that I knew some of them. The situations felt perfectly plausible - no mean feat in speculative fiction. The moral questions felt absolutely current and relevant and important. I love talking about this book with people (which is why I twisted arms to get my husband and one of my book clubs to read it).

Have you read it? What did you think?

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Jenn Jilks said...

I really liked your review, it shows character. I feel as if I am in your book club! (I don't know enough women my age in my newish town.)

Well done!
Cheers from S.E. Ontario Cottage Country!

Topher said...

I started reading this book, as it was recommended to me by a friend in Williamsburg, but for some reason I couldn't get into it. I'm not sure if it was just timing because I usually like sci-fi and I am the opposite of you: I like when books/movies skip around in time. I should give it another chance at some point.

Scott Parker said...

I read this book when I originally was published some time in the mid 1990s. Interestingly, it's one of the few books to stay with me as the years roll on. I really liked it and the deep theological themes it presents. I never read the second book, however. I may have to re-read the Sparrow and then get to Children of God. Thanks for introducing the novel to more readers.

Sarah Laurence said...

We’re getting snow in Maine too (falling at 3 inches/hour!) How disappointing to have your book club cancelled, but snowy days are good for reading. I’ve never heard of literary sci fi, let alone literary Jesuit sci fi! Your book group sounds fun as does this book.

Sarahlynn said...

Thanks, Jenn, that's what I aim for! If you're ever down in Missouri, you're welcome to drop by one of my book clubs. After hearing a co-worker talk about hers for months, I asked to join. (She no longer attends, but I'm still part of that group.) Later, I started my own book club by inviting a few women I wanted to get to know better. The two groups have really different personalities and reading styles, but I love both of them!

Topher, it really doesn't read like typical sci fi, that's for sure. Spoiler. 2/3 of the way through the book we find out that one of the major characters is gay.

Scott, I agree, this one's stuck with me, too. And while religious belief is unnecessary to enjoy the book, I really appreciate the way the author clearly respects and honors different religions and beliefs (including Catholicism, Judaism, and atheism). Children of God picks up with Emilio after his confession to the Father Superior and simultaneously tracks what's going on on Ragat after his departure. Fascinating.

Sarah, I bet that's beautiful! We expected a big snow here but only got about 3 inches (on top of 1-2 inches of ice). Unfortunately my reading so far today has been limited to reading picture books aloud, but hopefully nap time will allow me to indulge my own tastes a little more.

Linda McLaughlin said...

I haven't read The Sparrow but you're review of it intrigues me. It's funny, I'd just finished reading a far less literary book (Secret Sanction by Brian Haig) that also "pulls off that amazing storytelling trick of describing something horrific and then making it understandable and a lot harder to judge than you'd assume." I like the way you put that and wish I'd thought of it.

Ellen Booraem said...


I, too, read this when it came out, and it's stuck with me. The depiction of the "aliens" and the misunderstanding that sets the events in motion just floored me. It struck me as exactly the sort of thing that would happen when humans first contacted denizens of another planet---how can you possibly understand one another's motivations?

Stacy said...

I've read very little sci-fi (I think only Brave New World and The Hunger Games), but the premise does sound unique.

Stay warm!

Sarahlynn said...

Thanks, Linda! It's one of my favorite plot devices, when an author can pull it off well.

Ellen, oh yes! I don't think it's quite as good as The Sparrow, but it's a good book and follows the plot through to some very interesting conclusions.

Stacy, this novel doesn't read like typical sci fi and is a nice bridge book for readers of literary and "upmarket" fiction. (I loved The Hunger Games trilogy, btw, and picked it up in part because of your review.)

Barrie said...

Well, if this book stuck with Sarahlynn, Scott and Ellen, I think I'd better give it the old college try! Thanks for such a thoughtful review!

Sarahlynn said...

I hope you enjoy it! My book club has been postponed (again!) but even the non-sci fi readers seem to be enjoying the read.