Really loved this. The worlds she builds are just perfectly balanced between slightly familiar and slightly foreign. The anthropology and history of the alien planet are described enough for the thing to cohere, but not in such intricate detail that the reader gets bored and wanders off. The book is imaginative and engaging, it's hilarious in places (Anne is the best) and totally heartbreaking and terrifying in others. Russell is a really, really fearless writer, going straight into scenes and moods and emotions that I would run screaming from or pay money to avoid.
Like Martin Amis's London Fields, this is a "whydoit"-- you know from pretty early on in the book WHAT happens, the telling is a question of why it happened. ("God is in the why" is the refrain of the book.) A kid from a slum in Puerto Rico grows to become a Jesuit priest and linguist. His whole life long, all these little things click together so that when sentient life is discovered in the Andromeda system, he and his friends are the perfect people to go and meet them. It seems, pretty clearly, like this mission is his life's work, and God's plan for him. So then why, in the midst of God's plan, do terrible things happen. Like, horrifying. What does that mean?
This is pretty much my favorite topic under the sun, but also one of the most difficult to tackle well. Prometheus acted like it was going to be about this, but the writers gave up punted to the sequel. This is why Signs is one of my favorite movies. YES I know. M. Night, Mel Gibson, aliens, I KNOW. Listen: I know. But the answer to the question "Is there meaning in the universe?" is always either "We don't know" or "God has a plan but we can't know it," and I love it when a book or movie or whatever tries to go beyond and actually take a stand on an answer. So part of me wishes The Sparrow had gone slightly further than it does at the end.
But it's a minor & personal complaint. The book is stunning AND obviously has a very passionate fanbase--people would see me carrying it and be like "OH MY GOD THAT BOOK." People stopping you on the street to talk about the book you're holding is basically any book lover's dream, and this one delivered in spades.