Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A Sequel of Sorts: Lila by Marilynne Robinson

Reading seems to turn me in circles. Just as I face a stack of books I haven't read yet, the one I'm reading makes me want to re-read others. Such is the case with Marilynne Robinson's latest novel Lila (and such, I suspect, will be Kate Atkinson's A God in Ruins, my current read, that follows characters from Life after Life, and Jane Smiley's sequel to Some Luck.)

When I read Robinson's novel Gilead, it struck such a chord. I hadn't been quite as taken with Housekeeping as others had been (although years later, certain images still stick in my head), but before I had even finished reading Gilead, I knew I would have to share it, especially with my father, who at nearly eighty is still preaching.  (Whether he read it or not is his business, not mine.)

In that book, John Ames, a congregationalist minister in Gilead, Iowa, aware of his impending death, is writing a letter to his seven-year-old son, giving the boy not only his own story, but that of his father and grandfather, both also minsters in the same town, though with quite different temperaments and philosophies.  The boy is the son of Ames' second wife Lila, a much younger woman from a much different background who appeared in town, meeting and marrying Ames, enjoying security and stability for the first time in her life.

Gilead, however, is John's story, not Lila's.  Readers learn of the loss in his life--his first wife dying in childbirth and the child shortly after, his close friendship with Boughton, the local Presbyterian minister, and his suspicion of Boughton's son Jack, who returns to Gilead after an estrangement.  The charm of the story for me lay in Robinson's sensitive treatment of Ames' faith--simple, trusting, accepting his own inabilities to understand everything.  Ames not only preaches a gospel of love and faith, but he seems to demonstrate it in his own life, all the while aware of his own shortcomings.

Because I had loved John Ames' character so much in the first book, I was a bit suspicious of Lila in this newest novel.  As I read the story of her unusual childhood, possibly but not certainly an orphan, taken by the woman Doll from a home where she was at best neglected, I couldn't any more imagine how she could be a suitable wife for Ames than any of his congregation could have.

She seems as surprised by his innocent attraction to her as I was, as John Ames was perhaps.  She is as skeptical of religion as he is blindly trusting.  She goes into the marriage with no certainly she will stay.  Her years of roaming with Doll and for a time with a band of itinerant workers, hardest hit during the Depression, have conditioned her to be wary, to focus first and foremost of survival.

Little by little, though, the narrative emerges as almost a parable.  Ames at times seems to be a Christ figure--or at least the prophet Hosea, accepting Lila, loving her with all her flaws, offering all he has.  Lila gives John Ames every opportunity to reject her. Her confession of a time working in a brothel in St. Louis doesn't shock him or repulse him as she expects it might.

As the child she bears him forges the connection between them, she also tentatively tests the faith he offers her, allowing him to baptize her, then trying to wash it off. She gradually accepts the kindnesses of Ames' church members, and eventually extends similar kindness to other lost souls, including a young man who moves into the shack she abandons when marrying Ames, a should more lost than she.

Now that I've read Lila's story, though, I want to revisit Gilead, to see John Ames' life story this time through her eyes.  If only I had more time to read.

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