Prodigal son parable wins Orange Prize

American's work is unanimous choice of panel judging £30,000 book prize

In her 28 years of writing, Marilynne Robinson has been far from prolific. But the American author's track record for producing quality rather than quantity in fiction was confirmed last night when her third (and latest) novel won the prestigious Orange Prize.

The 66-year-old writer was the "unanimous" choice of the panel judging the women-only fiction award, presented at a ceremony in London's Royal Festival Hall.

Her novel, Home, is a profound examination of family life told through the eyes of a prodigal son returning home to confront his past and his alcoholism.

Robinson was probably the best-known writer on the shortlist for the £30,000 award, now in its 14th year. Her first novel, Housekeeping, was published in 1981 and her following work, Gilead, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

The Iowa-based novelist beat nominees including Samantha Harvey, the sole Briton on the shortlist and a debut author who splits her time between writing, completing her PhD and managing an astronomy museum; and Ellen Feldman, another American writer whose novel, Scottsboro, was judged by bookmakers to have been the favourite for the prize.

Fi Glover, the BBC Radio 4 broadcaster and chairwoman of the judges, said Home had been a straightforward choice for the five-strong panel, which included the writer and novelist Bidisha, the journalist and academic Sarah Churchwell, the journalist Kira Cochrane and entrepreneur Martha Lane Fox.

Glover said: "It was a unanimous verdict. It was quite an easy victory for Mary. All of us brought Home to the table. Some of us had other books but everyone had it in their final bundle of two or three titles. I loved the story for the quality of the writing, there was a luminous quality to her words. It is a very wise book in that she takes a familiar theme but she imparts great wisdom with it. It is a profound work of art."

The novel, which also wins its author a bronze figurine called the Bessie, has strong echoes of Robinson's previous book by being set in the town of Gilead. It focuses on Jack, the prodigal son of the Broughton family whose godfather – John Ames – is the clergyman narrator of Gilead.

Robinson chronicles Jack's return home to Gilead as the childhood bad boy who has wrecked his life with alcoholism and sets about an awkward and incomplete reconciliation with his father and sister, Glory.

The judges said they had decided that the overlapping nature of the two books did not detract from the success of Home as a standalone novel.

Reviewing the novel for The Independent, the author Salley Vickers wrote: "Home is not a novel in which plot matters. Like Jane Austen, but in a different key, Robinson's intent focus is the super-subtleties of human exchange. The heart of this utterly absorbing, precisely observed, marvellous novel is the fumbling inadequacy of love."

The award, which rubs shoulders with the Booker and Costa as one of the most lucrative and respected English-language literary prizes, is likely to produce a sales fillip for Robinson, who joins an illustrious list of winners including Zadie Smith, Lionel Shriver and Andrea Levy.

Organisers were last year forced to defend the award against criticism that its "women-only" status had become unnecessary in an era when female authors regularly win unisex literary awards. AS Byatt suggested that the Orange Prize was a sexist award and said she forbids her publisher from submitting her novels for consideration. "Such a prize was never needed," she said.

Kirsty Lang, the chairwoman of the judging panel for the 2008 award, said it was time for a debate on whether men should be included among the judges for the award to ensure it catered for a broader mix of reading tastes.