Thursday, August 14, 2014

REVIEW: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

The Sparrow (The Sparrow, #1)The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Original Publication Year: 1997
Genre(s): Science Fiction
Series: The Sparrow #1
Format: e-book
Narrated By: NA

My reasons for picking up The Sparrow? Both Ann Kingman of the podcast Books on the Nightstand and Rebecca Schinsky of Bookrageous and Book Riot list it among their top favorite books of all time. Both of these ladies know a thing or two about books so I was definitely interested. These recommendation were coupled with my love for one of Mary Doria Russell’s other novels, Doc which was one of my favorite reads of 2012. The Sparrow was, downright astonishingly, Russell’s first novel and she hits it so far out of the park, it would take light years to even see the park again.

I give it four (really 4.5 stars) rather than five stars, simply because there is one little section about three quarters of the way through that I though got a little schmaltzy and just didn’t work 100% for me BUT I feel like a jerk because overall this book was beautiful and thoughtful and funny. It’s literary, character-driven science fiction that uses science fiction for its noblest virtue - to explore ideas outside of the current box of reality so that they won’t be hampered by the limitations of the world we know. She tackles (on her first go mind you) no lesser theme than the nature of faith and God.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The story is told using a split narrative, bouncing between the present (sometime in the latter 21st century) and the past seventy years prior. The narrative is centered on Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest who has just returned from an obviously disastrous first contact mission, funded by the Jesuits, with the planet of Rakhat. There is scandal and mystery surrounding his return and the man himself is in no condition to speak of what happened. As the book progresses we follow his recovery and slow recounting of what happened while flashing back to experience first hand how it happened.

The book has a pretty broad cast of characters though it is more up close and personal with the characters in the flashback – the Edwards, Jimmy Quinn, Sofia Mendes, D.W. Emilio is definitely at the heart of it all. He’s an unconventional priest –funny and irreverent – but he is devoted to a life of service which he pursues with charismatic energy. His faith is of a practical nature - focused on the everyday work with people. It is not until astronomer Jimmy Quinn picks up a transmission of music being broadcast from many light years away that Emilio really starts to feel and channel the divine. Everything in the universe seems to be leading this group of seven people into space and into contact with the planet Rakhat. And then everything goes horribly wrong.

Basically, this is just a really great story that is at once very personal and very epic in scope. If you are a reader that is wary of sci-fi, I think you would easily love this book. Whatever you might be looking for in a book, you would likely find what you want here.

When I got to the end of The Sparrow, I read the following in the acknowledgements: “Finally, Dorothy Dunnett may consider The Sparrow one long thank you note for her splendid Lymond series.” With that, it became clear that I was always meant to love this book and why I think Mary Doria Russell is such a brilliant writer. We are, as all who deeply appreciate Dunnett and the Lymond chronicles, kindred spirits. Or at least that’s what I like to think.

Final Verdict: A beautifully written and engrossing first contact story which combines humor, tragedy, and spirituality.


Sofia knocked. Anne Edwards, white hair pulled into a messy bun, flour up to her elbows, answered the door. "Oh, no!" she cried. "Not just brilliant but good bones as well. I do hope you have a terrible personality, dear," Anne Edwards declared. "Otherwise, I shall lose faith in a just God." Sofia hardly knew how to respond, but George Edwards called from the kitchen, "Don’t let her fool you. She gave up believing in a just God when Cleveland blew the World Series last year. The only time she ever prays is the ninth inning." "And the night before a presidential election, for all the good it does. God is a Republican from Texas," Anne asserted, bustling Sofia into the living room.

"You know what? I really resent the idea that the only reason someone might be good or moral is because they’re religious. I do what I do," Anne said, biting off each word, "without hope of reward or fear of punishment. I do not require heaven or hell to bribe or scare me into acting decently, thank you very much."

God walked in Jerusalem and days later, folks nailed Him up and then went back to work. Faced with the Divine, people took refuge in the banal, as though answering a cosmic multiple-choice question: If you saw a burning bush, would you (a) call 911, (b) get the hot dogs, or (c) recognize God? A vanishingly small number of people would recognize God, Anne had decided years before, and most of them had simply missed a dose of Thorazine.

"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 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."

"You see, 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, then 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," he continued with academic exactitude, each word etched on the air with acid, "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."

Question and Answer by Mary Doria Russell from the back of The Sparrow:

Q: What’s the moral of this story? A: Maybe it’s "Even if you do the best you can, you still get screwed." We seem to believe that if we act in accordance with our understanding of God’s will, we ought to be rewarded. But in doing so we’re making a deal that God didn’t sign onto. Emilio has kept his end of a bargain that he made with God, and he feels betrayed. He believes he has been seduced and raped by God, that he’s been used against his will for God’s own purpose. And I guess that’s partly what I’m doing with this book. I wanted to look at that aspect of theology. In our world, if people believe at all, they believe that God is love, God is hearts and flowers, and that God will send you theological candy all the time. But if you read Torah, you realize that God has a lot to answer for. God is a complex personality. I wanted to explore that complexity and that moral ambiguity. God gives us rules but those are rules for us, not for God.

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