The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

Wow! This book was not what I expected at all. I don’t remember who recommended it, and I didn’t make note of the recommendation in my TBR list along with the title of the book. I had some vague idea that that title had something to do with Matthew 10:29-30, where Jesus said:

“Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So do not fear; you are more valuable than many sparrows.”

I was right about the source of the title, but The Sparrow ain’t your typical, everyday, run-of the mill Christian fiction title. First of all, it’s science fiction, published by Ballantine Books, mainstream publisher, not an intentionally “Christian” book. A group of adventurers, scientists and Jesuits travel to Alpha Centauri in search of the source of a SETI radio signal picked up in the year 2019 at a small astronomical station in Puerto Rico. The action takes place in two time periods: 2019 and following as the explorers set off for an unknown planet somewhere in the relatively nearby galaxy and the year 2059 when only one of the members of the team returns to earth, the sole survivor of a highly controversial mission.

The book, Christian or not, is distinctly theological in its themes, discussions, and undertones. And the book discusses sex, celibacy, and deviancy in practically all its many permutations, managing to be both provocative and thoughtful at the same time.

The ending is shocking and somewhat abrupt, even if I could almost see it coming. The discussions of God and the universe are, at the very least, good food for discussion and even argument, and nothing seems forced or preachy. In fact, at the end of the book and even after I read an interview with the author in which the interviewer asked some of the questions I had been asking myself, I still wasn’t sure what the author herself believed or what she was trying to say about the beliefs and actions of her characters. I have some ideas, but this book isn’t about certainty.

Here’s what it is about:

“And a lot of the time, even now, I think I must be a lunatic and this whole thing is crazy. But, sometimes—Anne, there are times when I can let myself believe, and when I do . . . it’s amazing. Inside me everything makes sense, everything I’ve done, everything that ever happened to me—it was all leading up to this, to where we are right now. But, Anne, it’s frightening, and I don’t know why . . . ”

She waited to see if he had more but when he fell silent, she decided to take a shot in the dark. “You know what’s the most terrifying thing about admitting you’re in love?” she asked him. “You are just naked. You put yourself in harm’s way, and you lay down all your defenses. No clothes, no weapons. Nowhere to hide. Completely vulnerable. The only thing that makes it tolerable is to believe that the other person loves you back and that you can trust him not to hurt you.”

He looked at her, astounded. “Yes. Exactly. That’s how it feels, when I let myself believe. Like I am falling in love and like I am naked before God. And it is terrifying, as you say. But it has started to feel like I am being rude and ungrateful, do you understand? To keep on doubting. That God loves me. Personally.”

But I must say that’s not the ending. That’s only the middle. What if you began to trust in God, and then you did get hurt. A lot. What if your choice is between believing in no God at all or believing that God is vicious, vindictive, and deceptive? It’s a question that people ask all the time. Maybe not in those words. But we do ask.

I highly recommend this book IF you like your theology in sci-fi form and IF you can tolerate some language and some sexual content, as they say in the movies. For mature audiences. But well worth the price of admission.

On a related note, I found the link to this Christianity Today article about science fiction and its influence on spiritual beliefs and worldview in our culture at Brandywine Books. I think the score is more even than Professor Herrick indicates in his article: a lot of contemporary and classic sci-fi embodies a faith in evolution and in Space exploration-as-saviour, but a lot of it is dsytopian and cautionary, pointing toward a Christian worldview. I would put The Sparrow in the latter category.

Oh, there’s a sequel to The Sparrow called Children of God. I’m almost afraid to read it since it could be disappointing in several ways and only good in one way that I’m not sure the author can manage to pull off. However, that said, I’ll probably give it a try since The Sparrow was so very good.

Writen by Sherry

I'm a Christian, the homeschooling mom of eight (yes, all mine) children, married to a NASA engineer, and a confirmed bookaholic. I like old books, conservative politics, and new and interesting ideas. My hair is grey, my favorite clothes are red, and I love purple. Come on in and enjoy the blog. Be sure to tell me what you think before you leave.

16 thoughts on “The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

  1. I too have heard great things about this book before…including, now of course, your review of it as well.
    Just a minute…yes, I checked Library Thing and I actually own it! I will have to move it up in the rotation.

  2. The Sparrow is one of my favorites. I read it years ago and I still think about the story from time to time. Children of God does not disappoint. Blessings. B.

  3. I have discovered that I do like Sci-Fi and fantasy type novels. Your review has intrigued me. I just put The Sparrow on my TBR list…on my list on Amazon. Now to check my library to see if it is one I can borrow.

  4. I’m glad you liked this one. I read/reviewed it when I first started my blog and I really enjoyed it. However, I actually liked the 2nd book, Children of God, better than this one. I can’t say why, b/c that would give away some of the plot, but for me The Sparrow was just sort of the intro to the story.

    I look forward to seeing what you think of Children of God!

  5. I agree with the above commenters, do read Children of God, it is satisfying, if not as brilliant as The Sparrow.

    Also, if you’re interested in more of the same author, but completely different, A Thread of Grace is wonderful historical fiction.

  6. I’m so glad to see you read and reviewed this. I love The Sparrow and have found it deeply affecting every time I’ve read it. For me, Children of God was kind of disappointing. It’s worth the read, especially to find out what happens to the characters after their journey, but it left me feeling like Russell answered too many of the questions that should have remained ambiguous.

  7. I read both this and CHILDREN OF GOD back-to-back, before I started blogging (so I don’t have review links to give you), and collectively, they were an amazing reading experience. Definitely read CHILDREN OF GOD. I really liked both books because, in addition to telling an engrossing and memorable story, they’re very thought-provoking; I thought they asked more questions than they answered, which was fine with me. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on THE SPARROW!

  8. I remember being rather stunned at how good this book is. I don’t think you will be disappointed by Children of God.

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