Thursday, December 18, 2014

Review: Lila

From Lila, by Marilynne Robinson:
Open quote 

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."

After the jump, my review.

Grade: B-

The child's name is Lila and this is her life story. It's not all as heart-wrenching as the passage above. The story is melodramatic and a bit preachy, but the characters are believable and the writing is affecting. If you enjoy warm, touchy-feely stories, this one's for you.

First, the back story. Lila is the third novel by Marilynne Robinson set in the fictional town of Gilead, Iowa. The first, Gilead, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2005. This latest installment is a finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction. Despite the high praise, I hadn't read any of Robinson's previous works and figured it was time to rectify that oversight.

Second, the characters. Lila is the story of a naive young woman with a hard-luck life who ends up married to a long-widowed, small town preacher, the seventy-something Rev. John Ames. It takes a talented writer to make that pairing not creepy, but Robinson is up to the challenge.

As a very young girl, Lila is rescued from abusive parents by a tough-as-nails itinerant farmworker, Doll, who has her own reasons to distrust authority and passes that independence onto Lila. After growing up with Doll, Lila, living on her own, is drawn to a church in Gilead and to its kind pastor. In turn, the pastor sees something in Lila. Eventually this unlikely couple wind up married.

Third, the plot. There's not much of a plot. The novel is mostly a character study, primarily of Lila, but also of her kind-hearted preacher husband. Much of the story is how the two reconcile their different religious beliefs. The minister, of course, has a theology based on years of scriptural study and discussion with neighbor and friend, the Rev. Jack Boughton. Lila was raised without religion, taught to actively distrust churches and ministers, but instilled by Doll with a strong moral code. ("Don't lie more than you have to, don't take what ain't yours.") Lila uses the Rev. Ames's Bible, specifically the Books of Ezekiel and Job, to sharpen her reading and writing skills and learn about religion from this man she is falling in love with. Her naive questions reveal a natural intelligence that often stumps the minister. John Ames wishes Lila had chosen to start her bible lessons with the gospel of Matthew instead of Ezekiel. Each grows to respect the other's viewpoint without either one giving up their deeply ingrained instincts.

Lila is a simple story of simple people. Read it for the character study. Read it for the religious message. Read it for the glimpse into another world -- small town America during the Depression and early postwar years. Read it for a nice change of pace from more meaty reading. No matter what, it's worth reading, but in the end, one trip to Gilead, Iowa, is enough for me.

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