I've been meaning to read Lila ever since...well, ever since it came out last year, I suppose. I read and absolutely loved Gilead, to which I guess we'd have to call this the prequel, but somehow never did get around to it until I saw it pop up on Audible and decided it was time to give it a go. Yes, I listened to it rather than reading it, but as I loved it so much I shall now be buying the book. However it was superbly read and every minute was a huge pleasure.
By a strange coincidence, when I was about halfway through, my friend, Shiny co-editor, and blogger supreme Simon posted, or rather reposted, a review of the novel which was so spot on that I was tempted just to point you to that and leave it alone. But no, you are going to get my thoughts on the novel, though I urge you to take a look at Simon's review as a supplement.
So -- this is the story of Lila, who readers of the earlier novels (there's also Home) will know to be the wife of John Ames, the elderly minister who, until he met her, had been living alone for decades following the death of his wife and newborn baby. Lila is only sketched in in the earlier books, but there are hints that she is still, after some years of marriage, a bit of a mystery to her husband, who, however, loves her deeply. Now we are going to be privy to that mystery. The whole story of her previous life is now revealed slowly, mostly through her memories -- although this is told in the third person, it is entirely from Lila's point of view. So we discover that she was rescued as a tiny child from a situation in which she was clearly being abused or at least severely neglected. Her rescuer was a woman named Doll, who obviously has a fascinating back story of her own which we never discover. Having pretty much stolen the child, Doll becomes a wonderful mother to her, but the life she gives her is unusual, to say the least. For Doll is attached to a group of wandering outcasts, who move from town to town taking whatever work happens to be available. The group is led by a man named Doane, who for a long time holds this disparate collection together, until circumstances cause the group to break up. Then Lila's life, up to now secure in its way, becomes scary and appallingly unpleasant until one day she wanders into a small Iowa town and encounters John Ames.
The story of their remarkable growing relationship is told with the most beautiful and moving delicacy. Lila's past has left her incredibly wary, and though she is drawn to John from the start, she is not used to trusting anyone or to committing herself. The two of them are, on the surface, as different as could be -- and yet there is an incredibly strong bond between them pretty much from the start. Here's a moment early on when John gives her a locket to wear:
'I'll take that chain now, whatever it is'.
'Excellent', he said, 'you should put it on. Its a little difficult to fasten. My mother always asked my father to do it for her'.
Lila said, 'Is that a fact'.
He studied her for a moment. 'You'll have to do something with your hair. If you could lift it up'.
So she did, and he stepped behind her and she felt the touch of his fingers at her neck, trembling, and the small weight of the locket falling into place. Then they stood there together in the road, in the chirping, rustling silence and the sound of the river. Then he said, 'So, are we getting married or not?' and she said, 'If you want to. It's alright with me, I suppose. But I can't see how its going to work'.
One of the most remarkable and touching things about the novel is the way this new relationship feeds into John Ames firm Christian beliefs. The son and grandson of ministers, and the best friend of another, he knows the Bible back to front, but when Lila starts to read it -- choosing difficult books like Ezekiel and Job -- she asks questions which perhaps he has never quite known the answer to, and causes him to question (though not doubt) his own belief system: 'You must think I say the things I do out of habit and custom, rather than from experience. That is inevitable, I suppose'.
Essentially, then, both these two people learn from each other, and, though we have only seen them together for about a year by the end of the novel, it's clear that their relationship, and their love for each other, can only grow deeper over time. And this despite the uncertainty that John continues to feel that Lila may one day leave him, taking their child with her, and indeed that Lila feels that maybe one day she will do that. Of course if we have read Gilead we know that she is still with him seven years later, which is a comfort! And indeed, though it is only at the very end of this novel that Lila is able to tell John that she loves him, we really know that she does, perhaps before she realises it herself.
Simon says in his review that he believes Robinson to be the greatest living writer, and it's hard to disagree. Her novels are few and far between, and it's actually astonishing to realise that Gilead was published ten years before Lila, but that somehow she was alive in Robinson's imagination even then, so that her brief appearances in the earlier novel appear to be informed by all that the later novel simply uncovers. So, if you haven't read these wonderful books, please waste no time. I'm back to Gilead now, which of course will have an added depth now I know so much about Lila and the way she and John got together, and I also have Home (which actually deals more with another family) on order too. So expect to hear more about Marilynne Robinson before too long.