The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell

The SparrowThe last time I picked a book for my online book club, it was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad time, and so when it finally came around to my turn again I decided to go with a foolproof selection — a book I’d read and loved and already foisted upon another group member, who also loved it. Co-member Mary says this is “cheating,” but I say it’s “not getting kicked out of the book club.”

It seems to have worked, as in fact all of the people who read it liked it, though we didn’t end up having terribly much time to actually discuss the book because of reasons. This is a shame because this book makes me want to talk about ALL THE THINGS.

Of course, as I said last time I read the book, a lot of what makes this story so interesting and wonderful is the way that Russell tells you things in stages — first you learn that Emilio’s hands are somehow no good, then you learn how they’re no good, then you learn why they’re no good — so I won’t spoil any of that here. It was really interesting on my second reading to see how Russell dances around certain subjects that become important later, some of which I missed the first time, but those reveals later were not nearly as exciting.

Another thing I noticed on my second reading was the stuff around the Jesuits in Space storyline; I didn’t remember going in how much world-building Russell does to create her version of 2019, which was 23 years away when the book was first published, 11 years away when I first read this book and only six years away now. The computing technology is surprisingly accurate, if awkwardly phrased in 90s speak, but there are some references to the fact that we’ve killed all the trees that make me very glad that we haven’t, though I guess we’ve still got six years. Russell, who lives in my beloved Cleveland, also hedges her bets by getting the Indians to the World Series, though of course they lose, because that is how Cleveland works.

Narrative-wise, I had trouble with the book last time because it spends a lot of time on some scenes I consider boring and absolutely none on others I am more interested in, and because the ending runs in front of you and slaps you right in the face when you think there should certainly be much more story left. I was still disappointed in that this time, especially regarding certain scenes where certain things happen to certain characters, but since I knew more of what was going on it was easier to see this as a function of the story being told by a reluctant narrator who wants to spend more time on the good things than on the horrible, awful things that happened to him. Seriously, poor Emilio.

Story-wise, I am still madly in love with this novel. I love that music sets off a space journey and that the Jesuits are way more organized than any government. I adore all of the humans brave enough to go to space and the Runa that they meet (though I wouldn’t want to live with them!). I appreciate if not enjoy all of the realistic consequences of this journey and of the human propensity to break the Prime Directive.

If you haven’t read this book, I really think you should, because it will make you think lots of thoughts and that is never a bad thing. Also Jesuits! In Space! You can’t go wrong.

Recommendation: For everyone, unless you are allergic to space priests, I guess, or very bad things happening to good people. There’s a lot of that.

Rating: 10/10

P.S. Apparently several years ago Brad Pitt’s production company bought the rights to The Sparrow, with the intent to have Pitt star as Emilio. Russell subsequently revoked the rights, and while I am sad not to have this fantastic book as a movie, I am very happy that I won’t have to worry about that casting.

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The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell (9 September − 13 September)

Read this book. Seriously.

The Sparrow mostly follows the story of Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest who, through coincidences (or God’s work?) ends up on a mission to a just-discovered planet near Alpha Centauri. The book follows two timelines, one starting when Sandoz returns to Earth, as the last surviving member of the crew, several years after some very embarrassing and horrifying information about Sandoz has made its own way back. He is to report on the mission to his superiors, but has to get over what happened to him before he can face the other priests.

The other timeline starts back at the beginning, with the events leading up to the discovery of the planet, then details the mission and what happens after the crew lands on Rakhat. This second timeline slowly fills in the large number of blanks left in the first, and helps make Sandoz’s alleged crimes understandable.

I don’t want to be too specific here, because a lot of what I loved about the book was the way Russell would bring in a fact without explanation, causing me to say, “What? When did that happen? Why?” and then a little while later the narrative would answer my question.

I loved this book a whole ridiculous bunch. It’s an interesting take on what would happen if we found life on another planet and went out to meet it, and if meeting that life would go just how we might expect it. I’m a big fan of the dual timeline, and Russell uses this to her great advantage.

The one thing I didn’t like terribly much is that the ending happens so fast − you spend a lot of time leisurely following the stories and then all of a sudden Russell is throwing in forced exposition in order to tie up the story. I would gladly have read another hundred pages (the book is about 400); the rushed ending was unnecessary and made the religious tie-ins at the end seem a bit trite.

Rating: 9.5/10