June 23, 2008
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
Arthur C. Clarke Award1996 Fawcett Columbine Book (Ballantine Publishing Group)
Finished on 6/17/08
Rating: 4.5/5 (Terrific!)
"A NOTABLE ACHIEVEMENT . . . Russell shows herself to be a skillful storyteller who subtly and expertly builds suspense."
"AN EXPERIENCE NOT TO BE MISSED . . . If you have to send a group of people to a newly discovered planet to contact a totally unknown species, whom would you choose? How about four Jesuit priests, a young astronomer, a physician, her engineer husband, and a child prostitute-turned-computer-expert? That's who Mary Doria Russell sends in her new novel, The Sparrow. This motley combination of agnostics, true believers, and misfits becomes the first to explore the Alpha Centuri world of Rakhat with both enlightening and disastrous results. . . . Vivid and engaging . . . An incredible novel."
--Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
"POWERFUL . . . Father Emilio Sandoz [is] the only survivor of a Jesuit mission to the planet Rakhat, 'a soul . . . looking for God.' We first meet him in Italy . . . sullen and bitter. . . . But he was not always this way, as we learn through flashbacks that tell the story of the ill-fated trip. . . . The Sparrow tackles a difficult subject with grace and intelligence."
--San Francisco Chronicle
"SMOOTH STORYTELLING AND GORGEOUS CHARACTERIZATION . . . Important novels leave deep cracks in our beliefs, our prejudices, and our blinders. The Sparrow is one of them."
I have three brothers, so naturally I was outnumbered when it came to voting on television shows when we were growing up. Forget The Partridge Family, Family Affair, or The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. I got stuck watching episode after episode of Star Trek. I think that's when I decided I hated science fiction! I never ventured into the Sci-Fi section at the library or book store and honestly, I just couldn't understand the appeal.
Well, if it hadn't been for my online book group choosing The Sparrow back in 1997, I may have not only missed out on one of the best books I've ever read, but I would've remained stubborn about science fiction in general. Fortunately, I have gained a great appreciation for the genre and have gone on to read several more books, leaning heavily on the post-apocalyptic theme (as well as becoming a huge Battlestar Galactica fan). I initially thought The Sparrow was the first science fiction book I'd ever read, but then I remembered I'd read (and loved) Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine back in seventh grade. I also have a vague recollection of borrowing my brother's copies of Logan's Run and The Adromeda Strain, which I think I enjoyed as well, although the details are a bit fuzzy.
It's been over a decade since I first read The Sparrow and as with most of my favorite books, I'd been meaning to read it again for several years, but kept putting it off for something I hadn't read yet. When it came time to nominate a science fiction title for my face-to-face book club, I decided the time had come. I was very happy when the group voted to read it this past month. More importantly, I am happy to say that it withstood the test of time! It was just as enjoyable as the first reading. Maybe even more so since I wasn't rushing through the chapters, eager to see where the story was leading me. I read more slowly and paid much more attention to all the details. I was actually a bit surprised that I had forgotten so many! I was fairly certain of a few important plot points, but as it turned out, I had forgotten the specifics and was pleasantly surprised by the turn of events. It was almost like reading a new novel. However, the extrapolation of technology that had so intrigued me back in '97 wasn't quite as exciting this time around. Laptops and PDAs are such a big part of our lives now that I barely noticed the mention of similar devices in the book. Yet, in spite of the lack of technological thrills, I fell back in love with all the characters. It felt almost like a reunion of sorts, visiting with old friends of whom I'd grown so very fond.
The Sparrow wound up on my Top Ten list back in 1997 and everyone on my Christmas list received a copy that year. When I went to work for Borders Books & Music in Fort Worth, the book became one of my favorite titles to recommend (to customers and employees). I had recently returned from a small book conference in Cleveland where I met Mary Doria Russell and I was eager to tell customers about her upcoming sequel and the news of a possible movie (which, unfortunately, still remains to be filmed).
If you're one of those people (as I was) who swear they'll never read any science fiction, don't be too quick to dismiss this remarkable book. The author has created some wonderful characters that will stay with you long after you finish the book. The writing is both captivating and provacative, not to mention quite funny here and there. I've yet to meet anyone who didn't love it.