Review: Marilynne Robinson’s ‘Lila’

Sometimes you read books you just aren’t ready for. Fangirl was one of those, as was Pride and Prejudice, The Fault in Our Stars, and what little of Madeleine L’Engle’s fiction I read before tenth grade. Some of these premature readings were required; others were for pleasure and demanded more life experience than I could boast at the time.

When my American Novel class started reading Gilead last semester, I was excited. So many people had told me about this book that I knew I would love it.

But when we finally started Gilead, everything went wrong. I read the first ninety pages, reread them, and then kept reading to the end of the book, not because I liked it, but because I didn’t like it. And I needed to know why.

As I sat on my bed and read page after page, I couldn’t help but wonder what everyone else saw that I didn’t. Sadly, I never found out, not even after two class discussions and a 6-page paper on the book’s central character.

To say I was disappointed is an understatement. So many people had championed this novel–people I respected, people whose reading tastes both mirrored and informed my own–that I felt guilty for not liking it. So perhaps that’s why I picked up the sequel as soon as school let out. But I finished Home with the same mixed feelings that I finished Gilead, and this second failure to enjoy a book that my friends and mentors adored shook me so badly that I held off on starting Lila, the third book in the series, for a month.

In the interim, I started my job, which turned out to be a continuation of last summer’s project: cataloging the contents of the John Allen Chalk collection at Harding School of Theology. For those of you who haven’t spent two summers elbow-deep in his letters, Chalk was a well-known radio- & church of Christ-preacher in the 1950s, 60s, and early 70s. He has since traded preaching for practicing law, but his legacy as a civil rights advocate lives on in his letters.

While Chalk himself was progressive in his views on race relations, many of his peers and listeners were not, and their letters to him were shocking, some even vitriolic. Thus, when summer ended and school began, I was relieved to quit the job.

However, spending eight hours every day in the presence of such hatred had taken its toll on me, and I arrived at school exhausted, wounded, and bitter about church. The way I saw it, I’d spent my whole summer getting a firsthand look at the “Christ-like love” of the church, and let me tell you, it wasn’t pretty. I managed semi-regular attendance at church and walked away with perfect scores in my church history class that semester, but that was all I could handle of organized religion. I was just too hurt.

Of course, I didn’t realize that the Chalk letters had prompted this spiral into self-doubt and cynicism; instead, I thought it was merely a side effect of growing up, the infamous Faith Crisis that they’d warned us about in youth group and had never seemed threatening till now. I think what confused me is that I never once questioned God in all of this; instead, I questioned people, and wondered why anyone would ever want to convert someone to such a horrible, close-minded religion.

But it took returning to the Chalk papers for me to recognize that my problem wasn’t with God or my faith, but with my faith tradition. Once I made this distinction, my feelings about Gilead suddenly made sense.

Written from an aging preacher’s point of view, Gilead is a father’s attempt to leave a legacy for a son who will not remember him. Already seventy at the time of the boy’s birth, Ames knows that he won’t live much longer and sets out to record his life’s lessons in a letter. That letter is Gilead, the book I couldn’t love.

I know now that I couldn’t love it because Ames was a preacher, and I wasn’t in the mood for a sermon.

Of course, Gilead isn’t a sermon. It is love and instruction and advice and regret, all woven into a father’s wish for more hours, more days, more months with his son. But I couldn’t see that. All I saw was the word “preacher,” and all I read was a long sermon.

Even after I identified the source of my troubles, I was reluctant to start Lila. Gilead‘s companion Home hadn’t wowed me, and I was worried Lila would turn out the same. But the difference between Lila and its companions is that Lila is told from an outsider’s point of view. You see, Lila (Ames’s wife) didn’t grow up in the church. She wasn’t a Christian and didn’t lead a good life before coming to Gilead. And I think that is why I was able to embrace her in a way I couldn’t Home or Gilead.

It’s hard to explain Lila to someone who hasn’t read Gilead. It’s not a sequel, exactly, because it happens before Gilead, but it’s not a prequel, either. It’s more of an expanding, a look into the life of this woman we’ve only seen through Ames’s eyes. It’s not an easy read, either; Robinson’s writing, though gentle and at times even beautiful, is dense and meandering. She often switches from past to present in the middle of a sentence, and even her more obvious transitions have no clear markers. As a result, I found myself rereading whole pages in an effort to pick up what I’d missed in moments of distraction or laziness.

A coworker once told me that Robinson was one of the most elegant writers she has ever read, and I’d have to agree with her. Not because Robinson’s words are particularly beautiful or her phrases especially striking, but because her very thoughts are elegant. Even noble. The character of Lila has a dignity rarely encountered in literature and even less in real life. She is rough and ragged, but she is also fierce and loving and gentle, somehow all three at once. And what I love most about her is that she doesn’t magically become the perfect preacher’s wife who cooks casseroles and cleans house and sits primly in the pew on Sunday mornings. Instead, she stays true to her self–her questioning, troubled self–and Ames loves her in spite of it. Perhaps even because of it.

I found little pieces of myself in Lila. I saw my questions and rough edges, my skepticism and irreverence. And while I didn’t love the book, I’m glad I read it.

It showed me that even an outsider has hope of heaven someday. 3.5/5 stars.

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