Nothing much happens in this wrenching book of lambent moral beauty, and yet everything important in life is at stake here: sin, forgiveness, revenge, fate, hope, disillusionment, lives "laid low by grief, as if it were a sickness," and the shimmering possibility of grace.

John Ames (Jack) Boughton, prodigal son beloved by his minister father and his seven brothers and sisters, comes home to Gilead, Iowa, for a few months and then leaves again, probably to disappear from their lives forever. After impregnating and abandoning a local girl, he had disappeared for 20 years, most of them spent drunk and some of them in prison. And all that time his father had worried about him with an abiding and hopeful love.

Through the eyes of Glory, the youngest of his siblings by five years, we see a very different Jack than the man described in "Gilead" by his godfather, the Rev. John Ames. In Robinson's earlier novel, Jack's return is a source of anger and misery to the narrator, who sees in him only meanness and mocking irony.

Jack, as Ames perhaps senses, is his alter ego, the man of pain and doubt and therefore possessed of a deeper spirituality than the rest of his boisterous family. From childhood, Jack felt himself a being apart, and now Glory sees how defeated he has become, "that wary look of his, caution with no certainty of the nature of the threat."

Glory has come home to care for her dying father. At 38, her life has shipwrecked after a long engagement to a man she should have known was married. She has thrown away all 452 letters he wrote to her in his frequent absences. Now she watches with compassion and sorrow as Jack writes his daily letters to Della, the teacher he had met in St. Louis and loved for 10 years. For her, he got sober and went straight. But her father, also a pastor, would not have him in the family and now Della has moved back home. She is Jack's last flicker of hope and Glory sees it draining from him when four of his letters return unopened. Jack says bitterly, "Hope is the worst thing in the world. ... It makes a fool of you while it lasts. And then when it's gone it's like there's nothing left of you at all."

Glory and Jack, getting to know each other, conduct conversations of Jamesian calculation. The most ordinary exchange is a dance of advance and retreat, every sentence bearing the weight of the unsaid and the inexpressible. Jack is imprisoned in a well of loneliness. Conversations with his father misfire. The gulf between them becomes evident as they watch the race riots in Montgomery, Ala., where police use dogs and fire hoses on protesters. How can these white men call themselves Christian, asks Jack, and not rhetorically. His father rebukes him: The protesters must have done something wrong; they ought not be so provocative.

Jack turns to his godfather, but is rebuffed. Jack presses him on the subjects of sin, justice, fate. Are people predestined to their lives? Are the sins of fathers visited upon their children? But Jack's courteous manner infuriates Ames, who sees in it provocative irony and cynicism, the unforgivable sin. Only Glory, helpless to intervene, knows that Jack is suffering and flailing in the dark.

The meaning of kindness is a recurring theme. Every time Glory does something for Jack, he responds, "That's kind of you," a phrase that increasingly carries more than politeness. We learn, with Jack and Glory, that kindness is a difficult virtue, a complex obligation between giver and receiver. Toward the end of the book, Jack's father, sick and tired, says in irritation that he doesn't have the strength for kindness anymore.

An urgent question resonates on every page: What is a good life? It is a question that Jack, Glory and Ames ponder with deep seriousness. Another is the meaning of grace. If it is God's love, how does it manifest itself? Robinson answers both obliquely, in her loving embrace and deep respect for her saints and sinners. She renders the inner and outer workings of their lives not as painful fact, but as poetry bathed in the beauty of her language.

Brigitte Frase of Minneapolis also reviews for the New York Times and Los Angeles Times.