Marilynne Robinson has a place in my personal Pantheon on the strength of a single book, her 2004 novel, Gilead, in which John Ames, an aged Iowa preacher with just a little time left in this live, writes a long letter to his young son (see my thoughts here). A few years later, in her novel Home Robinson returned to the town of Gilead and to the same events to give us a different perspective on a father-son relationship (my thoughts on Home here). While I didn’t like Home nearly as much as I liked Gilead, I was of course ecstatic to find out that Robinson was returning to Gilead yet again in last year’s Lila (2014). And once again I must start a review by saying I’ve been wrestling for some time with the book. It’s worth it, for sure, I loved a lot about Lila . . . but I wanted to love it more, so I wrestled. I haven’t been able to bring myself around, though. Yet.
Expectations can be a terrible thing, and I still hold out hope that my expectations misled me and that I was looking at this book from the wrong perspective, hoping for Gilead again, which is foolishness on my part, but it’s there. Gilead was magical for me. There I was, a young father myself, reading about the inexplicable, unconditional love for a son (I now have three sons, and a fourth — yes, I don’t think I’ve mentioned that here yet — on the way). Gilead is written in the first person, in the language of a preacher. Lila, though, is none of these things. In Lila, the focus shifts to Lila, the Reverend John Ames’ young wife, and it is not written in a high, American, religious language. To Lila, such things are foreign. So, this is not Gilead, and I’ve been trying to come to terms with that, something I can do easily in my head, but not quite yet in my heart. When I manage to do that, I think I’ll see that Lila is on its own a wonderful book.
Why am I being so defensive about a book that I was disappointed in? Why am I still fighting with myself, accepting the blame, when I wouldn’t do this for many other authors? Because in this trilogy, Robinson is doing something rare in contemporary American literature: she’s writing about America’s spiritual past. Her explorations are sophisticated, sad, generous. Again, if I step out of my own way, I feel those powerful emotions for Lila as well, so I think it’s just a matter of time for me.
Have I waffled enough? Yes, I think so. Now let’s see if I can describe the book a bit and then go to the growing spark of deep admiration that I sense is growing.
Lila is also different from the prior books in that it takes place over a span of time. We begin the novel when Lila (not even named that yet) is four or five years old. She’s a miserable child, essentially feral due to severe neglect. On the first page, she is just outside her own home, on the threshold of death:
The child was just there on the stoop in the dark, hugging herself against the cold, all cried out and nearly sleeping. She couldn’t holler anymore and they didn’t hear her anyway, or they might and that would make things worse. Somebody had shouted, Shut that thing up or I’ll do it! and then a woman grabbed her out from under the table by her arm and pushed her out onto the stoop and shut the door and the cats went under the house.
Inside the house, the house grow quiet (or, as Robinson puts it “the people inside fought themselves quiet”) and Lila is in a haze when a wandering woman named Doll (again, maybe that’s not even her name) comes and takes Lila from the stoop:
The door might have opened, and a woman might have called after them, Where you going with that child? and then, after a minute, closed the door again, as if she had done all decency required. “Well,” Doll whispered, “we’ll just have to see.”
I never had any misgivings about this opening. Robinson’s style, which lapses perfectly into the subjunctive, leads us into this world of semi-existence. The child is unnamed, the people in the house are more mysterious forces of potential energy than people, and the most the child can do is fret that Doll, someone she hates most in the world, is taking her somewhere, and she cannot do anything about it because she’s slipping into an illness. It’s all wonderfully rendered.
What follows is a narrative that shifts from one time to another. We keep learning about Lila’s childhood with Doll, but we also shift to her courtship with and marriage to the Reverend John Ames. Each strand progresses naturally and since she keeps secrets from her husband, the interest in how she got from that stump to Gilead is a concern — and curiosity — the reader and John Ames share. Of primary concern to the reader is this: what happened to Doll?
For me, this forced mystery was a bit tedious and frustrating. I lacked the patience of John Ames, who was willing to let Lila tell or withhold her story as she saw fit.
Strangely, though, while I was personally frustrated with the structure of the book once it became clear we’d be strung along a fair bit, that structure lends itself, is perhaps even necessary, to achieving what to me makes the book so wonderful: John Ames’ patience is a form of grace that Lila finds uncomfortable — she doesn’t want it. She even thinks she should leave John Ames, and he senses this, fears this, but he doesn’t think he’s worthy of stopping her. In other words, he’d love for her to stay, but he would completely understand if she left him. His fears don’t just go away either; in Gilead, when Jack Boughton comes back to town, John Ames fears his wife is in love with Jack — again, he fears it, hates it, but feels it is almost right.
This uneasy relationship is beautiful, and Lila expresses it perfectly when she finally says to John: “I can’t love you as much as I love you.” It’s a paradox that makes perfect sense after the often frustrating book. I don’t want to get too coy here, but it makes the book better than it can be. It makes me love it more than I do. That’s why I think I will someday learn to love it as much as I do.