Monday, March 30, 2015

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

This book is winning the "Best Book So Far in 2015" award.  My little library, always just about one step behind the rest of the big book world just got this book, which the rest of the world was talking about back in the early fall.  So forgive me for being just a little bit behind.

Lila is one of those books that leaves you blinking, as though emerging from a trance.  Set in Iowa during the 1930s, Lila is the story of a young woman, abandoned as a baby and then, later, stolen by a woman who was working with a band of migrant workers.  She spends all of her growing up years enduring hard working conditions, a frightening case of being abandoned by her caretaker and the group of migrant workers, then being rescued again.  After the caretaker dies, Lila is left to take care of herself.

One day, caught in a rainstorm in the little town of Gilead, Iowa, Lila steps into a church, little noticing that a church service in in motion.  Lila and the old preacher's eyes meet and, though Lila doesn't say it, they are immediately attracted.  For the next 60 pages or so, Lila plays a will she stay-won't she stay game with the preacher.  She slowly falls in love with him, beginning with planting and tending his garden.  But Lila, damaged as she is, is convinced that nobody could ever love her, that everybody is going to up and leave any minute.  Finally, Lila becomes Lila Ames and goes to live with "that old preacher", as she refers to him throughout the entire book.

This book is a prequel to Gilead, written maybe 10 years ago.  I started it and never finished it, so now I am determined to go read it.  While Gilead is the preacher telling his life story to his son, Lila is set much, much earlier.  I think I might have gotten more out of Lila, had I finished Gilead.

I'll admit that it took me a while to get into the book.  It's written in a fashion quite unlike anything I've read.  There is a present and many pasts, all told in Lila's voice.  So, for example, the book starts with Lila being rescued, then jumps to her, pregnant, sitting on the porch and waiting for her husband to get home from church, then jumps to an experience with the migrant workers when she was about eight.  This makes for very confusing reading at first, but, just like an accent in a movie, after a time you stop noticing it.  The other unconventional thing about this book was that there were no chapters.  This made an already wonderful book even harder to stop reading.  Where was I supposed to stop?  I couldn't end right at that exciting part!  And so I devoured this book very quickly.

The other thing about this book is that it is written solely and completely through Lila's point of view.  There is no telling what the Reverend is thinking, if the neighbors are really looking down their noses, and if Lila really is the terrible person she thinks she is.  All we see is Lila's shame and self-deprecation, only Lila's narrow view of herself and the world.  This makes for a fascinating reading experience and a new, fresh way to approach characters.

The themes throughout the book are very interesting.  One is the intense loneliness that both Lila and John Ames feel.  John Ames, from losing his first wife and baby in childbirth and Lila from her isolated life and the way that she feels that nobody respects her.  The other emotion that seems to dominate Lila's inner thoughts is shame-complete shame at having lived such a rackety life, full of bad experiences and bad decisions; shame that she, as she sees it, will never be as smart as the Reverend.  The other theme that appears over and over is Christianity and the conflict between traditional Christian views and Lila's life experience.

Robinson, herself, is a devout Calvinist who has written quite a few books on topics of Christianity and, in particular, John Calvin's teachings.  She definitely provides a unique view of how Christianity is good at-and falls very short of-addressing deep poverty.  John Ames is not just a preacher; he also is a philosopher.  That's really what brings Lila and John together.  After she steals a Bible from church and begins reading starting, of all places, with Lamentations, they start to discuss her questions about being a Christian, life after death, and more philosophical questions.

Lila and John Ames have a very interesting relationship.  He is 65 and she, though we never know her exact age, must be somewhere in her 30s.  And yet, they appear to have a marriage of equals.  I honestly still can't figure out why.  John is very educated, respected in the town, financially secure, and much, much older.  But there wasn't this creepy element of robbing the cradle that is so often in books about relationships like this.  I think that Lila's complete, blunt honesty is part of the reason that their marriage works.  Lila is so frank, so willing to point out John's own flaws that I think they can be viewed as equal.

Lila has a hard time learning to trust-both other people and herself.  She constantly tells herself that she is getting on the next train, even after she becomes pregnant.  She worries that John will decide that she is an embarrassment to him and send her off.  And she can't even begin to trust God.  But it is through some of the strangest parts of her Bible reading (Job, for instance) that she begins to have clarity, to realize that people love her and that she can begin to rest.

There were so many times where my heart just about broke, reading Lila's story.  First, when she is sitting on the steps of her family's house, crying because she has been locked outside again.  Then when she is left behind a second time.  But the worst?  Lila is sitting listening to a conversation between John Ames and his friend, a fellow minster.  The friend begins to talk about "lost souls in China" and, with a start, Lila realizes that all of her friends, her makeshift family, are "lost souls", the people who will never get into heaven, according to traditional Christianity.  She realizes with a start that she will never get to see her makeshift mother.  She tells John Ames this and, in his explanation, you can read Robinson's own conflict.  He tells her that, though the view of saving lost souls and hell are the traditional teachings of the church, he cannot reconcile this concept of hell with that of his understanding of the vast love and forgiveness of God.

It's interesting-I tend not to read either deeply spiritual books or books involving as much heartache and drama as Lila contained. And yet, this book has to be one of my favorites now.  Robinson's genius writing, combined with some truly believable and lovable characters has created a masterpiece that I hope will make it onto lists of must-read classics 100 years from now.

Dear readers, if you made it to the end of this (long winded) post, then please, please, please go read this book and tell me what you think.  Even if this book doesn't sound like your genre of choice, the beauty and pure genius of this book is enough to make you love it.

2 comments:

  1. I am reading as fast as I can! This author has captured the deep, intractable wounds of parental abandonment and dire poverty. Her voice is completely authentic. I am loving this book and will re-read Gilead.

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    1. ....and we must have a thorough discussion when you finish it!

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