The Sparrow – Mary Doria Russell

Posted 30 September, 2014 by Trish in Reading Nook, Review / 24 Comments


sparrow Title: The Sparrow
Author: Mary Doria Russell
Published: Pages: 405
Genre: Fiction (Science-y)
Rating: Emotionally Riveting and Draining

On Amazon | On Indiebound | On Goodreads | On Audible

Ok, I know that this post is going to be “too long; didn’t read” so the bottom line is READ IT. Alright, carry on…

In Short: Life on another planet is discovered and a small research team, headed by Jesuits, travels to Rakhat to make contact.

Why I Read It: Because of all of the recent ravings. Strangely I had never heard of The Sparrow until a few months ago. I went the readalong route for a bit of hold handing because I was intimidated by “science-fiction” and “religion.” I needn’t be intimidated by either, though.

Thoughts in General: At first I was turned off by this book because of the whole religion angle. It wasn’t until Jill assured me that you can be unreligious and still appreciate this book that I decided, FINE I’LL READ IT. And I’m so glad that I did. I don’t think that The Sparrow hit me as hard as other readers–there was so much build-up to the ending that I felt gently let-down slightly before the final pages–but the journey along the way was an emotional and intellectual…and yes spiritual…ride.

That stupid blinking cursor. Taunting me for having ALL of the things to say but not really knowing how to say any of them.

The characters. Emilio–the priest who has never spoken to or felt God, the priest who initiated the journey to Rakhat. The priest who bears all of the burden and the blame for things he isn’t guilty of. Anne–the matron and backbone of the crew. Oh I love Anne–maybe more than I’ve loved any other character in print. She’s smart and sassy and brilliant and loving. A skeptic who still has the faith to be supportive. Sofia–a bit of an enigma. A character who is tough to connect with but still somehow sneaks into your heart. It’s a small cast of characters (no I didn’t name them all), but Russell does such a wonderful job of sketching such human characters. I know it’s become rote to mention flawed or human characters, but truly. I will offer a small complaint about the “present day” priests all running together in my head. I’m still not quite clear on the differences in some of those guys.

The way that the plot unfolds. Told in alternating chapters of present time (actually year 2060) after the mission to Rakhat is over and Emilio has returned home and flashbacks to the time before the mission and during the mission. There is a delicious and taunting pull that these alternating chapters create. I largely felt disconnected during the present time, though, always impatient to get back to the mission knowing that it was going to culminate in disaster but not quite knowing how. At times the book is overly technical but the construction of the book as a whole was so impressive to me. I can see why people read this book multiple times.

The writing. The nuggets of truth and discovery. The fact that even the priests are at times faithless or unsure. The faith alone–to put your life in God’s hands and to then patiently wait to see where it will lead. It’s something that I’ve never personally understood but it was fascinating and a bit heartbreaking to watch. Yes it is a heavy book with really heavy themes, but there were enough moments of tenderness and lightheartedness throughout the novel to allow for much needed breathing room.

Bottom Line: The Sparrow is so beautifully written. As in the most gorgeous book that I’ve read in a long long time. I dogearred many many passages and after finishing I went back and reveled in the writing and in the brilliance of the puzzle pieces fitting together. Will this be my favorite book ever? No. Will it stay with me for a long time? Yes. Could I see myself reading it again? Yes. Do I want to read the sequel? Meh. Do I recommend it? Absolutely, but prepare yourself for a heavier read that will squeeze everything out of you. When I finished The Sparrow, I felt everything and nothing at all.

sparrow readalong

The Sparrow Readalong: Avert your eyes if you are avoiding spoilers!  MAJOR SPOILERS BELOW!! And please mark spoilery comments as much below.

Ok, the ending. Is it hopeful or not? Does the power of confession free Emilio at the end? Though this idea of confession bothers me because I feel like he is unfairly judged by the Jesuits upon his return. For this alone I would love to re-read the book knowing what comes at the end and seeing Emilio’s return from Rakhat through the priests’ eyes. Why do they assume prostitution rather than captivity? Oh but Askama. Talk about ripping your heart out and stomping on it.

What is your take on Supaari? I felt so betrayed by Supaari. I had to go back and re-read some parts from when Supaari is first introduced. The whole third-born, not able to have children, aspect really stuck with me and when the ending came to be I just felt struck down. Had he always meant to sell out the humans? On the one hand I wanted to appreciate the relationship that he shared with the others, particularly Anne, but on some level it was like he always knew the price he would receive.

What else do you want to discuss? I would love to have a twitter chat (we did have a few brief back and forths already), but man–trying to schedule everyone together is tough!

If you participated in The Sparrow RAL and have a final post, please link it up below:


Have you read The Sparrow? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the book…or alternatively why you may not think this book is for you.


24 Responses to “The Sparrow – Mary Doria Russell”

  1. I felt impatient during the present-day times, too, wanting to get back to the mission. I LOVE how you say you felt everything and nothing at all at the end. That really struck me – I had a similar feeling after finishing this one. I read this earlier this summer, but haven’t jumped into the sequel yet. I kind of wanted to let this one stay with me longer, you know? I’ve been enjoying reading the posts from those participating in the readalong!

  2. Yes, for a twitter chat!
    I agree with everything you’ve said. And I was utterly exhausted by the end. I’m not a religious person, but I love the way faith was dealt with in the novel. God, i was gutted by the end. I still con’t form coherent thoughts about it.


    I’m a non-believer, too, but was really into the religious aspect in the book. I’ve always been very interested in religion from an academic(?) aspect. I was heartbroken for Emilio. I can’t imagine believing that strongly…then feeling like not only had God betrayed me, but that he had RAPED me, too. Can you imagine?! And then accidentally shooting a child that he had been so close to? So, so sad.

    I loved just about every character in the book, aside from Supaari. I think he was all for himself, whether that meant selling the Earth people out or not. I’m not sure that he meant to from the very beginning, but had no problem doing so when the opportunity arose. What they did to Emilio’s hands made me want to cry. Much of the book was heartbreaking.

    So glad you liked the book as much as I did. sj and I are already planning on reading the sequel.

  4. I loved The Sparrow, and read it so long ago that I wish I could have re-read it and joined in the readalong, but couldn’t squeeze it in. After Children of God, the author has written different types of novels, all good in their own ways! She’s a beautiful writer!

  5. ****SPOILERS***

    I wasn’t surprised by Supaari… He just seemed really evil to me the whole time! I also thought the Jesuits were crazy for assuming all those things. But I sort of wonder if even in real life society if things have changed enough that if you find someone in a brothel which is uncharacteristic of everything you know about them that you would know he had been victimized and not “chosen” that life (as if anyone really truly chooses it). They just seems to lack so much compassion. And then when he said what happened then they were all shocked into compassion. That just didn’t make sense to me.

    **** END SPOILERS*****

  6. Ti

    *Sort of spoilery so avert the eyes*

    You and I talked about this already but for the sake of discussion, I don’t think what happened to Emilio was supposed to be bad or torture or anything like that. They were an unknown alien race. I do believe they thought it was a privilege for him to be chosen for such… ahem, attention. The hand thing. Even Emilio said that it wasn’t torture in their eyes, it was to make him one of them. Wikipedia explained the surgery in detail, saying that it was to elongate the fingers which was considered a mark of beauty and status to their race. Tu us and Emilio, it was a hideous thing… but to them I supposed they felt it was a sign of respect.

    I, too, was so angry at the priests when Emilio returned. How could they think he’d pimp himself out like that? Why would they even jump to that conclusion? And the thing with Askama… we all knew that was coming since they mentioned her death very early on. It seemed a bit much though when it actually happened.

    I am still not convinced that the ending is hopeful but it seemed promising to have Emilio share his story. I am not sure why he thought any of his was his faulty though besides the thing with Askama.

    And, I have been thinking about the book a lot, there is just something about it that doesn’t sit right with me. A detachment between myself and the characters and I cannot explain why. I liked Anne and George but when she was killed, it didn’t really affect me and really, it should have. And when Sofia gets pregnant, I felt ICK. It didn’t seem right to me. Maybe the back and forth prevented me from getting too close to the characters or maybe it was to make this group like any other group that ended up on the planet. After all, the singing was really having to do with the rape and torture of others. I’m sure we are to believe that this group was not the first to encounter them. Which makes them trivial specks upon the Universe.

    Oh lord, I could go on and on.

  7. Just finished it last night – it’s still simmering in my brain. I’ll have to wait a few days before attempting a review.

    I agree that a re-read at some point now that I know the end might be good and it would also give me a chance to truly savor the writing.

    “I felt everything and nothing at all” is exactly the right description.

  8. I haven’t written my review yet, although this is the second time I’ve read it. I will post it sometime this week, hopefully. I’d love a twitter chat too, but I know my time zone is the worst – lol.

  9. Such an interesting, provoking, thoughtful, crazy story. I think I liked it more so because it was so different than most things I read and so well done. I am looking forward to reading more by this author.

  10. I paired my review of The Sparrow with another review so I’m not going to link up (I’ve read 15 other books since I finished, so I didn’t go into any great detail) but thank you for hosting the read-along. I enjoyed having people to chat with as I read. It’s definitely the kind of book you want to talk about. Like SuziQ, the comment that you felt “everything and nothing at all” resonated with me. I don’t think I was hit as hard as many people but it still did get to me in some ways. Supaari was, IMHO, simply a product of his culture. Awful as he was, I didn’t feel like he betrayed the humans so much as he simply did not change his behavior in any way, in spite of what appeared to be an affection for Anne.

  11. I *think* I would like to read this. Seems like a heavy, dense read and I have been reading more fluff stuff in past few years. I am not put off by the religious aspect at all. I read about a lot of topics that might not describe me specifically, so why worry about a plot featuring religion? Thanks for an honest review.

  12. Even though I didn’t participate in this read along, I’m so glad that you hosted it. I read this a couple years ago and just loved it. Like you I was so doubtful that I would because of the description and everything else that I’d heard. But there were people who told me ignore all of that and just read it, I’m so glad I took their advice. It’s such a gripping read, one where you fall in love with the characters and have your heart broken along with them. I own the sequel, but I’m just not sure that I ever want to read it. The story felt so complete for me. Also, I’m finally back into the swing of things after vacation. Sorry for all the wonderful posts I’ve missed!

  13. I restarted my twitter account after skimming your post so I could join in a twitter chat of this book, but I think I might have missed it in my delay in responding to your post. Oh well, I needed a few more days to stew about the ending.


    To me, Emilio confessing is in line with the Catholic way of thinking. Only through confession and attrition can Emilio be set free from his sins — being an accomplice in Alan’s death and the murder of the Runa, prostitution, killing Askama, doubting god. Whether or not these are truly sins can be debated, but the priests very clearly thought they were and Catholicism says a (wo)man must confess their sins in order to be absolved of them. In their eyes, Emilio is not right with god and, therefore, is free, which means the ending is hopeful because anyone can confess.

    As the reader (and as a non-Catholic), I have a really hard time with this idea because, as you said, much of his guilt and shame came out of the priests’ judgement and the teachings of Emilio’s religion. But Emilio is supposed to believe in these teachings and he says that he does at several points in the book so I think it is supposed to be a hopeful ending. On the other hand, I don’t think we’re supposed to find it hopeful based on Russell’s interview where she says Emilio does not want him to go back to Rakhat, but god is not done with him. But you wouldn’t know that based on reading the book.

    I was always suspicious of Supaari. Cultures often identify having children as having empathy and compassion so the fact that he wasn’t allowed to have them, I think, meant to show the reader he had to channel his concern and care into another avenue. Being a merchant, that avenue would obviously be money and selling out the humans would be in line with that.


    Thank you so much for hosting this readalong, Trish! I never would have read the book otherwise and now I cannot stop recommending it to people.

  14. Oh, Anne, I did love her so much – she was everything! Witty, spiritual without religion, comforting, still sexy in middle-age. I was crushed when she was gone. Totally did not see that coming. Or almost anything else that happened in the last 40 pages!

  15. I finally posted my own wrap-up! I am so glad the book gave you all the feels. I know you’re “meh” about the sequel but I do encourage you to read it. Unfortunately, I can’t remember much about it which is why I’m definitely going to read it again soon.

    Thanks again for hosting this, Trish!