In 2019, humanity finally finds proof of extraterrestrial life when a listening post in Puerto Rico picks up exquisite singing from a planet that will come to be known as Rakhat. While United Nations diplomats endlessly debate a possible first contact mission, the Society of Jesus quietly organizes an eight-person scientific expedition of its own. What the Jesuits find is a world so beyond comprehension that it will lead them to question what it means to be human. -Goodreads
The Sparrow Review
I am not the right person to do the best job of writing a review for The Sparrow. The right person would be someone who enjoys diving into man’s relationship with deities. Someone who enjoys talking morals, ethics, and philosophy. Let’s be honest here… fire bad, tree pretty is more my style. But, hey, lookit! Atheist who willingly read a heavily religious book, and isn’t here to scoff at it!
I chose to read The Sparrow because I saw it on someone’s list and it looked intriguing. I’ve read what feels like hundreds of first contact stories. But I’d never read a first contact story where it was a group of religiously-minded individuals setting out to do it. Still, I probably wouldn’t have picked it up if not for the fact that it was Jesuits. The terms Christian or Catholic would have turned me off, but Jesuits made me perk up. I know nothing about them, so that combined with the fact that they aimed to make contact but not proselytize tipped it into “Must Read” for me. Going in, I knew it could be a book I ended up hating, but luckily that wasn’t the case.
I enjoyed The Sparrow. Mostly. The parts that make me interject the “mostly” have basically nothing to do with the story. The story itself is perfectly fine. I just wasn’t a fan of the way the story was told. The style did not appeal to me at all. It felt like I had to wait too long to get to ‘the good stuff’, and then when I did get it, it was parceled out. It was harder to submerge myself in the experiences of the explorers of Rakhat because of that. I felt like it was more difficult to get attached to Emilio Sandoz when I was constantly switching back between the befores and afters. I think a lesser imposed version of the style Mary Doria Russell wrote in might have been more effective for me. It was hard to get into, and it was easy to get weary of.
It’s easy to fall in love with the two oldest characters in The Sparrow. Anne was a woman after my own heart, and every woman deserves a husband like George. And a love like the one that they shared. Mendez was someone who I saw a lot of myself in. D.W. was almost a stereotypical character, but he grew on me after a while. There were others, of course, but those are the ones I really loved. And, of course, Emilio Sandoz, whom the book is really about.
I can’t say I particularly liked Sandoz. I also can’t say I honestly know if I was supposed to like him or not. Maybe I was just supposed to know him and then feel sorry for him? It was interesting how the other characters related to him. I did enjoy the transformation of the Jesuits after he came back from Rakhat as they slowly learned the truth of what happened. They had built up a particular image in their mind, and seeing how they dealt with learning the truth was a very gratifying experience.
The Sparrow is a quiet read. It’s not one you can easily just breeze through. The content itself necessitates that you slow down and (try) to immerse yourself in it. You need to absorb a lot of information and put a lot of pieces together. It’s thought-provoking and challenging. It’s gentle even when it’s being savage. It is a book that will stay with you because of that, even if it has no true great effect on you.
There were very few quotes I noted in The Sparrow, but here they are.
This first one is from Anne, and part of the reason she won me over so easily.
“Why is it that God gets all the credit for hte good stuff, but it’s always the doctor’s fault when sh*t happens? When the patient comes through, it’s always ‘Thank God,’ and when the patient dies, its always blame the doctor. Just once in my life, just for the sheer f*cking novelty of it, it woudl be nice if somebody blamed God when the patient dies, instead of me.” Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow
This one just made me snicker. So very well put.
My God, Giuliani was thinking, genius may have its limits but stupidity is not thus handicapped. – Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow
and finally, this one…
“What a wilderness, to believe you have been seduced and raped by God.” Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow
I don’t know what I think of that, to be truthful. But it meant enough that I earmarked it. I think because I’ve been through the stages of belief and grief and rage all mixed into one big ball of horrible that I kind of get it. ‘What a wilderness’ is a good way to put it. It is a terrible, dark, and scary place. The path that I found ended my belief, but I can still sympathize with Sandoz and his plight.
Overall, The Sparrow was an enjoyable story told in a frustratingly non-enjoyable manner. For someone who doesn’t mind the style of writing, it’s probably going to be a much better experience. It’s also probably a book that religious people will find more to love in than my heathen self did. However, as I hope I’ve made clear, I do not think badly of this book. I just can’t say it was an experience I’m willing to repeat.