The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

The Sparrow (1996), by Mary Doria Russell, opens in 2059, in the aftermath of a disastrous Jesuit mission to make first contact with an extraterrestrial civilization. Emilio Sandoz, a priest and linguist who is the only survivor among the mission’s crew, has just returned to Earth physically mutilated and spiritually broken. He is forced to give his superiors an analysis of the mission’s failure. Emilio’s account is interspersed with flashbacks to paint a heartwrenching picture of a project that started out with the best intentions but ended in death and scandal.

I first read this book for a book club about fifteen years ago, and it’s been one of my favorites ever since. I’ve always loved books that begin by showing a tragedy and then gradually reveal how it happened, and Russell executes that perfectly here as the plot builds to its riveting conclusion. The characters—a mix of Jesuit priests, scientists of varying faiths, and the aliens they meet—are well-drawn and almost universally sympathetic. The author, who has a Ph.D. in anthropology, does an excellent job creating alien cultures and thinking through the conflicts and misunderstandings that might result when very different cultures meet. If you like books that can make you think and cry at the same time, check this one out! A warning, though: some parts of this book are extremely graphic.

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Gretchen M