by Mary Doria Russell
*** About the Book ***
In the not-so-distant future, scientists pick up signals coming from outer space. Instead of the mathematical code they've always expected to find, the signals turn out to be music - the most beautiful and unusual music they've ever heard. While world governments debate endlessly about how to proceed, the Jesuit Society quietly puts together it's own team of explorers and sends them off to discover the source of the music. Many years later the sole survivor of the expedition returns to Earth physically and emotionally scarred. As his superiors try to get the whole story out of him, the reader is brought to contemplate the big questions - is there a god/God out there? If so, then how could these horrible things have happened?
*** Why I (re)Read It ***
This was one of the first books I read after starting my blog, back when my reviews were only a paragraph or two. Back then I wrote: "the author presents her belief that although there is an all-powerful God out there, He is under no obligation to protect and preserve those who love Him." That has stuck with me since I finished the book in 2007.
When Florinda suggested a read-a-long of this book to encourage more people to read it, I immediately agreed to help out. This is a book that needs to be read and discussed by many more people.
*** My Thoughts ***
Let me address one thing for all you non-SciFi/Fantasy fans out there. Please don't dismiss this amazing book simply because you don't usually read this genre. Yes, this book is SciFi/Fantasy but that is not the POINT of the book. Rather it is the device used by the author to get the reader to examine the "big questions" of life, human nature, and spirituality. If you avoid reading it because of the genre, you are missing out on an incredibly powerful book.
[Getting off my high horse now ...]
If anything, this book is better the second time around. Even knowing what was coming, I still felt anxious enough about the storyline that I couldn't read this before bed or I'd be wide awake all night. Russell is a master at creating suspense in the reader while doling out just enough of the story to allow it to sink in at a steady pace. What amazed me on this read was how much she gave away right from the start, clues that a first time reader simply wouldn't be able to understand for what they were but that a re-reader couldn't miss.
Russell also is adept at realistically capturing the wide spectrum of human emotions and relationships. Her characters are real and dynamic. She uses them to illuminate the changes in a marriage over many years, unrequited love, emotional isolation, loneliness, spiritual passion, dedication, and so much more. Even small sections of the story that are unrelated to the big picture are powerful in and of themselves. So many times in the past few weeks I've found myself referring friends to specific parts of this book to help them see a personal situation in a different light, or to support their own viewpoints. It is a book that is so very relevant to life.
I could go on and on here but I'm going to to leave you with the fact that I think this book is amazing and I recommend that everyone read it.
*** The Big Picture ***
Part of the read-a-long involved responding to discussion questions. For me it was like being in a book club, being encouraged to more deeply examine what I was reading and I loved that. Here are some conclusions I came to that were really eye-opening for me:
Sandoz believed that God brought together the people needed for this expedition and led them every step of the way to its conclusion. But more than that, Sandoz believed that God was leading HIM specifically. When Something Bad happens to Sandoz he feels betrayed by God and questions his core beliefs – did God actually lead him? Does God even exist? If God exists, how could He have led the expedition to where it ended up? The book ends with Sandoz still pondering those questions.
This part of the story bothered me both times I read the book. If Sandoz truly loved God and believed that He had arranged this for so many years to bring this team together, then how could he reject God in the end? Yes, things went very badly. Yes, he has the right to feel angry and possibly even betrayed. But to reject God? This is something I don’t understand.
It took the read-a-long discussion questions prompting me to make me really think this through, and I’ve finally figured out my problem with Sandoz’s reaction: he’s looking at the little picture. All along Sandoz has marveled that God has been working through many, many years to bring His plan to fruition. He believes that the whole purpose of God’s plan was to make contact with this alien race. But what if that was NOT the purpose of the plan? What if God is still enacting the beginning part of His plan, and this is only a step in the right direction? THAT is what I think Sandoz is missing – he is making God’s plan all about him, rather than trying to see himself as part of an even larger plan. It’s the same “all about me” attitude that many people have, a understandable reaction to crisis but not one that really makes sense in the big picture.
Now I understand why I like the follow up to this book, CHILDREN OF GOD, better that this book; I feel like it fits better with my "big picture" concept. Of course, now I really want to reread that book ... anyone want to join me?
*** Thoughts (and links) on the Read-a-long ***
This read-a-long was a fabulous experience. If you'd like to check out the responses to the discussion questions, click here. To see how other bloggers reviewed this book, click here.
*** Your Thoughts ***
If you've read this book, what did you think of it? Do you agree/disagree with my thoughts on "the big picture"? If you've never read this book, have I convinced you to give it a shot?