Review: The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell

Wow. I thought picking up The Sparrow was a bit daunting – I never thought staring at the blinky cursor, trying to wrap my mind around all of the feelings the story evoked would be even more intimidating. But those feelings are bigger than even the Big Thinks the revolved around, and there are so many. It’s like Charlie walking into the Meadow Room at the chocolate factory, knowing everything was edible and he could eat to his heart’s content. That’s fantastic – but where does he start?

Trish over at Love, Laughter, and a Touch of Insanity (who is as wonderful and fabulous as her taste in books)(well, except for East of Eden, but I think that disconnect is more my fault, heh) chose Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow for her September readalong. A few other bookish friends had been clamoring for me to read it, too, and I very much wanted to participate in a readalong. I thought it was as good a time as any. Except, you guys, it’s a book about religion. And it’s science fiction. Two of my least favorite genres. What was I doing?

Whatever the reason, I’m glad I did it. At first I described it as if it were Wrinkle in Time, but filled with Jesuits instead of a British family, and was written for grown-ups. Then I changed it to space-traveling Jesuits who make you fall in love with them one by one, only to smash your heart to bits later. (Hey, warning: you’ll need tissues when you read the book.) The point is, the book is more about how to be a person and make difficult choices in this completely whacked, messed-up, entirely too complicated world that we live in – and still be able to live with yourself. Okay, yes, there are Big Thinks in there like forgiveness and faith and (naturally) Are We Alone In The World? But I found the characters and the discussion very get-at-able.

There was one exception to that, though: the format. The story is told from the inside-out. You start off knowing what happens at the end of the mission. You know Emilio – one of my new favorite characters in literature – has been destroyed in spirit, mind, and a good part of his body, too. The story unravels (or perhaps is knitted together?) has he slowly spits out what happened during the mission to Rakhat, and what happened to each and every one of his friends, leaving him ruined and questioning the point of it all. It all. So sometimes we’re in real time, at Jesuit Headquarters, watching Emilio try to pull it together. Then we bounce back to the characters’ back-stories. Then we bounce back to present time. Then back to when they characters first found evidence of life beyond Earth (glorious, heavenly singing, if you’re wondering, and boy isn’t that a kick in the teeth later). And back and forth, back and forth, hearing pieces from the beginning of the story and pieces from the end, inching closer and closer to the middle, the linchpin to the story that makes what happened happened. I get that for that moment to have the emotional punch that it did, you had to tell the story this way, peeling back a layer at a time, making you care for the characters and drive you nutsy with anticipation. But the downside is that I was very often confused in the first half of the story, trying to keep characters and background straight. There’s a reason most stories don’t start in the middle!

Once I had everyone straight – who belonged to who, what back-story belonged to what storyline – I was onboard. I was able to immerse myself in Emilio’s gutwrenching search for meaning in his life and his faith. I mean, which put a character through all that he went through, only to yank it all away? Was the entire story a joke? Was Emilio’s life a joke? It’s difficult to tackle without giving it away, but I really want you to read The Sparrow for yourself. Some readers found the ending a little too pat, a little too deux ex machina. Suddenly, a revelation? An outburst and curtain? Screen goes dark? But for me, I liked that Emilio was left with some hope, a bit of resolution. It gave me hope. It made me feel like sometimes the struggle itself is enough, is actually the point. I like that you don’t always know why turtles are placed on fenceposts; that doesn’t change the fact that they’re there and someone put them there on purpose.

I like, mostly, that there are big books filled with big feelings. Stories that are complicated and not easy reads – not because they’re difficult to force yourself through! I dashed through The Sparrow in less than a week! – but because you have too many questions to tease through and questions to ask. The Sparrow was big and beautiful and powerful and stuffed with imagination and pushes us to our emotional limits. I can’t think of anything I like more than a book that makes me talk about it and think about it days, weeks, and months later. I love stories that refuse to be easily compartmentalized. 5 of 5 stars.

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